Slicing off top of Oxford ‘eyesore’ flats to cost £30m
Jon Ungoed-Thomas Published: 1 February 2015
- PORT MEADOW, an ancient meadow where Bronze Age people once buried their dead, was one of the most peaceful spots in Oxford. But now it is at the centre of a row over a complex of student flats that, it is claimed, has “vandalised” the city’s famous skyline.
Campaigners including the author Mark Haddon say the eight blocks that now overlook the meadow — and have been compared by a government minister to the Maze prison — were built without proper warning of the blight on the view of the city’s famous spires. Planning notices were allegedly posted up in a cul-de-sac.
Academics furious about the inadequate consultation have forced a vote of Oxford University’s congregation — the university’s sovereign body — demanding that the top floor of six of the blocks is removed to restore the view. The estimated cost of the work, including lost rent and providing alternative accommodation, is £30m.
Any decision by the congregation — which is comprised of nearly 5,000 academic and administrative staff — will be binding. It will meet on February 10 and there may also be a postal ballot. Previous decisions have included the refusal to award Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, who has proposed the motion, said the impact on the city’s skyline and the meadow was unacceptable.
“From many viewpoints, you get a long line of faceless, ugly, Stalinist blocks where there was once the skyline with its spires,” he said.
The flats were built on a brownfield site in a cul-de-sac near Oxford railway station. A consultation document produced for the university stated the development would “not be visible from the majority of Port Meadow”.
No planning notices were put on the common and most people who regularly walked in the area did not know about the development until building work started.
Removing the top floors on six blocks of flats will restore the skyline view
However, Nick Worlledge, a heritage officer at the city council, realised the controversial aspect of the scheme. He warned in an internal report in January 2012 that the “spires, towers and domes” of Oxford’s skyline could be dominated or obscured by the development. “There is no justification for this harm,” he wrote.
Despite the warning, his note was not published and planning permission was approved in February 2012.
There were furious objections to the scheme when building work started later that year.
Oxford University commissioned an independent review into the planning process, which concluded there had been inadequate consultation.
Nick Boles, the planning minister, who visited the site in January 2014, said: “Frankly, the only thing it reminds me of is the Maze prison. I think the idea that this is the first view from one of the most precious pieces of land in Oxfordshire is something of which the university and the council should be profoundly ashamed.”
The skyline from Port Meadow before the flats were built
The university has conducted a retrospective environmental impact assessment. Its options to modify the “adverse impact” on the meadow and skyline development include tree-planting and changes to the facades of the buildings. This is favoured by the university. Another option suggested is to remove the top floor from six blocks and install lower roofs.
Toby Porter, of the Save Port Meadow campaign group, said he was sympathetic to students who would need to move temporarily if the floors were removed, but Oxford University needed to sort out the “mess” it had created. “The high cost is the cost of accountability,” he said. “Oxford University is one of the richest institutions in the country and it can afford to put this right.”
Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Timeand a graduate of Merton College, is backing the campaign. “The Castle Mill development is a horrible eyesore,” he said. “We all understand the need for more housing, but the development was an abuse of the planning process. I support the campaign to remove a floor.”
A university spokesman said its focus had always been the best interests of the students and the city. It said it had followed the statutory planning processes and the cost of removing upper floors from the blocks would be more expensive than the development itself and was not justified.
The Oxford University Student Union has also said the option of removing floors would be a waste of money.
Oxford council said an independent review had found the planning process valid and all necessary information had been provided to the planning committee.