A PLANE has been used to photograph the whole of Oxford as part of the battle against illegal developments in the city, officials have revealed.
The plane was used in March to fly over Oxford in a bid to spot “beds in sheds”using thermal imaging, as council planning officers begin a city-wide crackdown.
But privacy groups have expressed concerns over the use of the plane without any notification to the public.
Oxford City Council chief executive Peter Sloman said: “There is evidence of illegal developments popping up around the city and some residents are living in them without kitchens or toilets or bathrooms.
“We want to nip this in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem and defend the vulnerable during the housing crisis.”
But the council has also said there are other uses for the data it has collected, such as detecting homes that are losing excessive amounts of heat.
It compared possible applications to those done by Luton Borough Council, which produced an online map that showed the heat loss of individual homes.
The council has mapped the entire city using a Cessna 310 – an American low-wing, twin-engined plane – a spokesman confirmed, and intends to keep the data “for as long as it is useful”.
The plane flew at night at about 7,000ft but the council did not state if future flights would take place during the daytime.
But a spokeswoman from privacy group Big Brother Watch called the collection of the data “disturbing”. Acting director Emma Carr said: “Residents in Oxford will be disturbed to hear that planes will be used to snoop on how much energy they are using or whether they have built a shed in their back garden.
“We need clear rules that establish what aircraft can be used and why, before we see our skies littered with flying cameras.”
Green councillor and scrutiny committee chairman Craig Simmons said the news was concerning.
He said: “I had not heard this was being done and so my concern would be would be whether the right checks and balances are in place.
“You need to be very careful with people’s privacy when using low-flying planes.”
Wolvercote resident Jane Wilkinson, of Rosamund Road, said: “I think it is an invasion of privacy, especially because they did not actually tell people they were doing it, or why, at the time.
“The council is voted in by residents, so they should have told us if they are doing this sort of thing.”
But Richard Groves, of Merrivale Square in North Oxford, said it was “no worse than Google Earth”.
He said: “I have not got a problem with it really. It is no more an invasion of privacy than a person driving around my street in their car.”
Council leader Bob Price said although council officers may visit homes identified as having buildings which might be illegal, residents would be given opportunities to explain if they were for non-residential uses.
He said: “I don’t think there is a need for checks on this because it is just a first step in the process of tracking illegal developments.
“And frankly, the landlords that make money from renting illegal and sub-standard accomodation deserve no sympathy from the general public.
“If people aren’t breaching the law they have nothing to worry about. It is very heavily regulated so it is only being used for this.”
He said the information from the planes was covered by the Data Protection Act 1998 and the safeguards built into that law.
The city council has so far spent £150,000 on the project, matched by the Government, but it did not state who it chartered the plane from.
Spokesman Peter Mr McQuitty saidthe council had looked to other areas, including Slough and Ealing where thermal imaging “had been used to great effect”, for ways to tackle illegal developments.
He said: “They had accurate, unarguable data in their hands that was 100 per cent effective as evidence in enforcement cases.
“It was also substantially cheaper than having people walking the streets and knocking on doors to find properties and will also provide a known reference point for planning developments.”