Andrew Hamilton, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University. His letter and our response

 29th & 30th January 2015 (The Vice Chancellor’s letter is in normal and  blue text, with comments and clarifications from the Save Port Meadow Campaign in italics below)

Congregation and Castle Mill

Dear Colleagues / Dear Congregation Members

As many of you will be aware, Congregation will be meeting on 10 February to debate a resolution on the future of postgraduate housing at Castle Mill, located between Oxford railway station and Port Meadow. As the resolution submitted by some members of Congregation involves a great deal of University money – an estimated £30 million – and as Council opposes it, I wanted to share with you some thoughts on the subject.

It is important at the outset to emphasise that the sincerity and depth of feeling of those involved is not at issue. It is clear that some people, including many living close by, believe passionately that these were not the right buildings to put up near Port Meadow.

 Thank you. However, “Some people” does not do justice to the scale of the opposition to the buildings. There were 2700 people who signed the initial petition, and more than 950 who responded formally to December’s consultation on the University’s Environmental Statement. We have been told this figure is approximately twice the number of public responses to any prior set of planning documents in Oxford. Around 95% of those respondents rejected Option 1, proposed to you by the Vice-Chancellor and Council. and instead supported Option 3, the Option that Congregation members are being asked to adopt on February 10th.

We recognise in the Vice Chancellor’s wording of “those living close by” the long-standing attempt by some in Wellington Square to suggest the campaign is driven by “nimbyism” and reject this. Port Meadow and the Oxford Skyline are heritage sites of local and national importance. St Barnabas is a Grade 1 listed building.

The fact that the proper decision-making processes inside the University, and planning procedures outside, were all followed fully does not lessen their dismay.

They were not. The Vice Chancellor’s statement here, most disappointingly, is simply not true. The “Goodstadt review”(the independent Roger Dudman Way Review commissioned by Oxford City Council in late 2013) documented a number of errors in the University’s handling of the planning application.

The relevant parts of the report (unedited and fully referenced) are pasted at the end of this letter, as it is critical Congregation members understand this key assertion by the Vice-Chancellor that correct planning procedures were following is incorrect.

The relevance and impalpable reality for members of Congregation is that it is unlikely in the extreme that had the University accurately modelled the impact of Castle Mill on Port Meadow in drawings at the planning application stage, and consulted publicly and transparently on such accurate visualisations, the buildings would ever have been approved. We can now say with certainty that there would have been huge public opposition.

 This has always been one of the most problematic aspects from the University’s perspective, ie that the lapses in proper planning processes and public consultation in effect were what allowed the planning application to be passed.

You will surely hear Professor Hamilton or Pro Vice-Chancellor James say on February 10th that the planning permission for Castle Mill is “legal”. Yes, but the above is why we consider it to manage to be at the same time blatantly and profoundly “illegitimate”, in the view of what has emerged about the planning process since approval was granted..

I recognise and understand that, and I can assure you the University has learnt from the experience . That is why we have adapted and implemented procedures to try to ensure that, as Oxford’s most frequent planning applicant, we always attain the highest standards.

If procedures were fully followed, what adaptations were needed? Would a Congregation member consider asking Professor Hamilton on February 10th exactly what lessons have been learnt from this experience, as the University has yet to elaborate on this point.

Professor Hamilton talks of “lessons learnt” as if good designs and high standards of public accountability and relationships with the local community were something new for Oxford University. Is it not your own traditions that have been so damaged along with Port Meadow, to have designed such appalling buildings, and to have refused to meet local communities for the more than two years the protests have been running?

Let me say something next about the wider University context and background. The housing at Castle Mill provides purpose-built homes for more than 300 postgraduate students, including those with families. As you know, such accommodation is in great demand. While undergraduate numbers at Oxford have remained pretty stable, the increase in graduate students from all over the world has been steep and rapid in recent years. They now account for nearly 45% of the overall student body. They also make a huge difference to the University in so many ways – including, crucially, our research environment and standing, as resoundingly confirmed just before Christmas in the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

The global competition for the best students is intense. When they turn us down, the most common concerns are about finance, about being able to afford to live and study here. Oxford is now rated the least affordable city in the country; it is ancient, densely built, and ringed by the Green Belt. The pressure on existing housing stock is so strong that the city authorities impose a cap on the overall number of students who can live out in non-university accommodation.

The University clearly has both real responsibilities and powerful incentives when it comes to providing student housing. That’s why, a decade ago, the first phase of the Castle Mill development was completed on a disused brownfield site on the Port Meadow side of the main railway line. The three- and four-storey accommodation has since housed thousands of students from all over the world.

The local community had no objections to this first phase of the Castle Mill development, which was widely publicised and properly consulted upon. Campaigners have consistently said in their public statements that they fully support the development of the site for student purposes Congregation members should understand that there has never been any objection to the development of Phase 2 of the site for student accommodation. The issue has always been that the impact on the experience of Port Meadow of building new buildings of such greater mass and height are not felt to be justified by the extra 38 rooms that were created by the fifth storeys.

In the light of what Professor Hamilton says here about the University’s responsibilities to provide student housing, Congregation members are also asked to note  one of the most important and shocking facts to have emerged from freedom of information requests submitted by Save Port Meadow campaigners in 2013. We now know that the University seriously breached the key planning conditions relating to ground contamination. Castle Mill has been built on old railway sidings, and was known to be a contaminated site.

 These conditions were inserted by the City Council’s Environmental Health department at the time planning permission was granted to safeguard the health of the future student and family occupants of the site. These breaches are a matter of record, and are set out in detail after this letter.

Three years ago the University received approval from the city council for a second phase of the Castle Mill project: an additional 312 flats on the extended brownfield site, consisting of eight additional buildings, two of four storeys and the others of five storeys. For more than a year now, the new development has been home to postgraduate students, including those with young families for whom the new flats make special provision.

Professor Hamilton says nothing in the entire letter about the design of the Castle Mill buildings. Congregation members will know that the design is the sole responsibility of the developer. The Castle Mill design has always been a huge reason for public unhappiness. Of all that has been written about the design, Congregation members are asked to note this recent comment made in December 2014 by English Heritage in their response to the consultation on the Options members are considering –

 Whatever may have been the pressures which shaped this phase of the development  – or prescribed, as it seems, by the client –appears to have contributed to the failure of the scheme to address the environment in which it has been set. They appear to have set out to design buildings which would be seen to be tall, repetitive, block like in form and prominent by colour. None of these decisions need certainly to have gone this way, save perhaps as it might have governed by the overall amount of units which the scheme was by then being asked to deliver.

At the same time a local campaign of opposition to the new buildings has highlighted their visual impact from ‘Port Meadow. That campaign has now been taken up in Congregation.

The Campaign has been driven sustained not just by the (now confirmed) impact on Port Meadow and the other “high value” heritage assets, but by the multiple errors in the University’s planning application, and, in particular, by the profoundly undemocratic way in which the plans were not subject to an adequate public consultation.

The fact that the University failed to consult properly with local communities is an unacceptable oversight in the light of how the buildings have impacted on such an important local and national recreational space. Congregation Members are reminded that Port Meadow (a SSSi) and the view to St Barnabas (Grade 1 listed) are meant to be protected in law.

The resolution put forward by a group of Congregation members refers to a report by independent experts commissioned by the University and published last term. This ‘Environmental Statement’ assesses the impact of the Castle Mill development, including both its visual aspects and the socio-economic needs of the University and the city of Oxford.

The University’s Environmental Statement confirms that harm classified as “substantial adverse” has been done to 4 “high value” heritage assets of local and national significance – Port Meadow, the Thames towpath, the view to Grade 1 listed St Barnabas, and the Oxford Skyline. Congregation members should note, if it was ever necessary, that one of the key aspects of the report was that it changes this damage to high value heritage assets for the sake of 38 extra rooms from a matter of opinion (of campaigners and members of the public) to a matter of fact, by experts commissioned by the Estates Department themselves.

The report describes three ways of seeking to balance these factors and concludes that the best option is to carry out additional landscaping and exterior work to help the buildings blend in more. It is estimated by the experts that this will cost £6 million. That is a lot of money, and finding it wouldn’t be straightforward for the University or its graduate housing budget. Some may argue it is too much, but having commissioned an independent expert assessment, it would surely be ill-advised to ignore its recommendations. 

The consultants (Pearson’s) who undertook the report confirmed clearly at the University’s consultation meetings at the Said Business School that the decision as to the “best option” was taken by the University, and not their own recommendation. They proposed 3 Options, and only Option 3 had a measurable impact in reducing the harms caused by the buildings to the four “high value” heritage sites listed.

However, Council’s approach doesn’t satisfy those who have championed a much more radical proposal that would demolish part of the buildings That is what the Congregation resolution means and Council opposes it. So the real question now on Castle Mill is not about the past, but about the right course for the future.

 This is a tendentious formulation & does not explain what is involved or why. The more radical proposals (Options 2 and 3) form part of the University’s Environmental Statement. Congregation Members should be again reminded that the Vice-Chancellor and the Council’s approach only satisfied less than 2% of the almost 1000 public comments left on the Council’s website.

This despite the fact that the public consultation held in the Said school was designed explicitly to garner support for Option 1, and was not successful. We surely cannot continue to ignore that depth and strength of local feeling. .And surely the key point here is that ‘The past’ cannot be so offhandedly fenced off; the past errors will precisely be living some 50 years or so into the future, if steps are not taken now to lower the excessive height of the buildings and restore them to the level of the tree line.

And that course, in my judgement, is certainly not to spend an estimated £30 million (the figure provided by the independent experts) as a consequence of removing the top floor of purpose-built student accommodation that cost £24 million to construct two years ago.

 The figure of £30m should not be used at this stage. Oxford City Council themselves have asked the Estates Department to give much more detail as to how this figure has been reached, as it is believed to include elementary double counting, specifically both lost revenue from the 38 rooms, as well as the cost of replacing them.

The high cost of all 3 Options (and the inconvenience that would be caused to the students for the 6-12 months of remedial work) is a regret to campaigners.

Congregation Members should, however, be reminded that had Professor Hamilton and the Estates Department engaged adequately with the protests when they started in October 2012, the costs of all 3 options would have been many times less, as would the inconvenience of the students, and the design and appearance of the buildings could have been modified at an early stage of construction, long before occupation.

 Congregation Members might want to ask Professor Hamilton directly on 10th February why the University was so slow to engage with the protests, allowing the costs of all mitigation options to rise so high? From our perspective, there appears to have been a substantial misjudgment that the depth of feeling about these buildings would go away.

 The high cost of all 3 Options today is therefore surely as much a result of that misjudgment by Wellington Square than of technical difficulties, and therefore unfair to lay at the door at campaigners who were never consulted on the buildings in the first place.

£30 million represents about 6% of the University’s entire external research funding in 2013/14. It is money that could otherwise endow some 25 junior research fellowships or 8 professorships in perpetuity.

Why choose this for comparison? What percentage of the University’s annual operating budget? Its capital expenditures for a given period? How does it compare to losses on OSIRIS?

Doubtless, some will question the £30 million figure; others may argue that, in any case, it’s only a drop in the ocean of Oxford’s supposedly boundless wealth. True, the £30 million is an estimate (albeit one made by independent experts) but that, of course, means the final figure could be considerably higher.

Or much lower

And although the University’s overall income is substantial, so are its existing commitments and outgoings as a look at the latest Financial Statements will illustrate. The idea that there is a spare £30 million down the back of the University sofa is wishful thinking.

 What is the current figure for pledges to the Oxford Thinking capital campaign?

However the figures are presented, the University and its Colleges are together one of the richest institutions and one of the largest landowners in the UK. To say the University cannot afford the cost of remedying their own mistakes made in the design and public consultation of buildings that have had such a negative impact on the general public’s experience of a key recreational and heritage lacks both credibility and accountability.

 In any case, this is not just about money, important though that is

 Correct. This is not merely a financial question, it is also about Oxford University’s obligations to the local community and to the environment, and to its own institutional standards of public accountability.

The buildings would have to be emptied for at least a year; students and young families would lose their homes and considerable pressure would be added to the already crowded rental market.

 Not necessarily true, until other possible construction strategies aimed at least impact have been considered. This has to be put against the loss of the public’s right to enjoy their heritage sites for the 40-50 years expected lifetime of the Castle Mill buildings

The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) has expressed deep concerns on behalf of all students about the implications of the Congregation resolution. Those concerns need to be heard and respected. 

 Students also deserved to have the University respect the ground contamination conditions during the construction of Castle Mill. We respect the views expressed to Congregation members by OUSU – we believe, however, that finding solutions to this re-housing for the 6-12 months it would take to modify the buildings is the clear accountability of the University and City Council, and should not be used by the University as a reason not to undo the harm they have caused.

No university, not even one as beautiful as Oxford, should put buildings before its students.

Isn’t this petitio principi?   We are not asking for that.   Congregation Members are reminded that the majority of major construction projects undertaken by the University give exceptional attention to design questions, and to balancing aesthetic with other considerations.

 We know Wellington Square paid the architects of the 8 Castle Mill buildings between one 6th and one 7th of what was paid to the architect of the new Blavatnik building under construction in the ROQ. Surely this is a case where the University simply overlooked the importance of Port Meadow to local communities, and thought it could design the buildings “on the cheap”?

 To go down the route demanded by the resolution would be a serious disservice to our students, but also in my judgement to the University’s public standing.

Really? The leadership’s judgement as to what Castle Mill has done to the University’s public standing has surely consistently been shown to be highly unreliable, going back to the first moment protests began to heard from those using Port Meadow in the autumn of 2012.

 It would raise questions in the wider world about the University’s consistency of purpose and capacity to deliver on its declared academic goals and priorities.

This Campaign has been fought consistently on the principle that it was not the right of the University to place its priorities over those of local communities, and certainly not without proper public consultation and democratic debate.

 Instead of building on Oxford’s remarkable success in the REF, it would undermine University claims to be doing all it can to attract and keep outstanding global research talent. Oxford’s donors and benefactors might wonder, in such circumstances, whether this is still the best destination for the philanthropic generosity that is so important to our future academic wellbeing. 

This is a bottom-feeding argument.  Would any member of the public familiar with the whole Castle Mill project believe that the University made a creditable decision in this case, given what has emerged about both the negative impact of high value heritage assets, and the planning process ? 

It surely would be both easier and more convincing for Professor Hamilton to now admit that the Estates Office let everybody down with this project, including himself.

Oxford is a place that attracts strong loyalty and affection, rightly so, and I have no doubt that the supporters of the Congregation resolution believe they are acting in the best interests of the University in taking up the cause of local campaigners. While I respect their opinion, I can’t agree with it. I fear the remedy is much more dangerous than the ills they cite. 

It is not obvious that Professor Hamilton respects the opinion of campaigners.

Congregation members should know that for more than two years now, the office of the Vice Chancellor has refused and indeed ignored repeated requests from Community Members for a face to face meeting to discuss those opinions. The requests for him to agree to such a meeting were repeated on several occasions directly to the Vice Chancellor by both Nicola Blackwood MP and Council Leader Bob Price.

The leadership of the University should be judged on its actions, not its words, and the reality of the past two years is that the top leadership in Wellington Square has made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to grapple with the ills, or even to say what they are. Even this letter immediately prior to the vote at Congregation still refuses to acknowledge the documented errors in the University’s handling of the planning process.

 The decisions of Congregation are important, and it matters that they are made for our institution as a whole. For that to happen, people with the right to vote need to exercise it. I hope you will do so on 10 February.

Campaigners recognise that there are no good choices facing members of the Congregation on February 10th. There are no bad people on any side of this debacle, no bad intent.  Just exceptionally bad buildings, a bad consultation exercise, which has led to very bad choices you face.

We understand and respect some of the points made by Professor Hamilton and by OUSU about the implications of voting for Option 3, but still share the view of 98% of the respondents to the recent consultation exercise that the University should nonetheless adopt it.

The Castle Mill scandal and indeed the Save Port Meadow campaign is a problem in great part of Wellington Square’s own making. It is time the University starting acting like the world-leading institution that it is, and take responsibility for properly rectifying the harm caused by these dreadful buildings.

Andrew Hamilton / Save Port Meadow Campaign

Annexe 1 –

In his letter to you on 29th, the Vice-Chancellor says again that the “planning procedures” were “followed fully” by the University. We disagree with his statement. But judge for yourselves.

Please see below unedited and fully referenced extracts from the 2013 Independent Review of Roger Dudman Way, known as the “Goodstadt” review. The full report can easily be found and downloaded online.

“the process that was used therefore does not appear to have met the guidance, for example included in the LGA/PAS guidance on Probity in Planning which argues for a clear record of the process” (Main Report, para 55)

“It is accepted that the submitted information (by the University) contained errors and was not adequate in various ways, for example in terms of the assessment of visual impact and statements on contamination (Main Report, para 60)

“there were errors and limitations submitted by the applicant” – Executive Summary, para 10b

“the applicant’s Design and Access statement did not assess the scheme in terms of its impact on the views from Port Meadow….In addition, a range of other design factors should have been assessed explicitly. The only assessment that was undertaken (an analysis of the skyline silhouette) was required after concern was expressed by officers in their evaluation of the application. The visual assessment to the planning committee was therefore limited” – Executive Summary, para 17 “

Although there was no pre-application discussion with the Oxford City Council’s Environment Department, contamination was tested for as part of the geotechnical background report in 2012 and a standard condition was placed on the consent given to the developer. The key aspect of this condition was that it should be discharged prior to the commencement of development and prior to occupation. Both of these requirements were breached by the University. (Executive Summary, para 25)

The planning application form indicated there was no contamination issue. This was wrong and has caused some concern in view of the long history (of contamination) involved. In answer to questions by the Review, the University’s consultant confirmed that this was a mistake and arose from a belief that the necessary decontamination of the whole 1.2ha had taken place prior to the building of the phase 1 in 2002. However, as discussed in Section D, when this error was known, the form was not corrected” (Main Report, para 192)

The key aspect of the Condition 16 on contamination that is relevant to this Review is the need for the applicant to discharge the condition prior to commencement of development and prior to occupation. Both of these conditions were breached. (Main Report, para 194)

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