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The view from Port Meadow, before and after. Original photos from Save Port Meadow.
The view from Port Meadow, before and after. Original photos from Save Port Meadow.
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  • Before: the view from Port Meadow across to the tower of St Barnabas church and more distant 'dreaming spires' in 2008. Photo: Save Port Meadow.
    Before: the view from Port Meadow across to the tower of St Barnabas church and more distant 'dreaming spires' in 2008. Photo: Save Port Meadow.
  • View towards the development from Port Meadow, completely eclipsing Oxford's 'dreaming spires'. Photo: Save Port Meadow.
    View towards the development from Port Meadow, completely eclipsing Oxford's 'dreaming spires'. Photo: Save Port Meadow.
  • View towards the development from Port Meadow, completely eclipsing Oxford;s 'dreaming spires'. Photo: cover of the EIA.
    View towards the development from Port Meadow, completely eclipsing Oxford;s 'dreaming spires'. Photo: cover of the EIA.
  • Campaigners gather before the development, October 2014. Photo: Save Port Meadow.
    Campaigners gather before the development, October 2014. Photo: Save Port Meadow.
  • 'It gives rise to some impacts but these are not significant and can be addressed by appropriate mitigation'. The view of Oxford's planning supremo Murray Hancock.
    'It gives rise to some impacts but these are not significant and can be addressed by appropriate mitigation'. The view of Oxford's planning supremo Murray Hancock.

Oxford University must put right the damage it has caused

Matthew Sherrington

14th November 2014

The country's first ever retrospective EIA finds that eight five-storey accommodation blocks built by Oxford University caused 'substantial' damage to historic views of the City's dreaming spires, writes Matthew Sherrington. Planners and University want to 'learn lessons' and move on - but campaigners are determined to cut the carbuncles down to size ...

Port Meadow is the most magnificent stretch of common land beside the Thames, a rural retreat within a stone's throw of the city's bustle, untouched for thousands of years.

The first ever retrospective Environmental Impact Assessment was published in Oxford at the end of October.

Its focus is a row of eight five-storey accommodation blocks built by Oxford University on the edge of the City's Port Meadow, following a flawed and much-criticised City Council planning and consultation process.

A community campaign has fought both institutions for two years, in what has been the biggest planning battle in Oxford since the 1960s.

Even the former Planning Minister Nick Boles weighed in, calling the buildings "disgraceful". As he told the Oxford Times on a personal visit to see them, "I think that this is possibly one of the worst designs I've seen of any set of new buildings to go up in the last 10 years. Frankly, the only thing it reminds me of is the Maze Prison."

And in 2013 it was runner-up for Building Design's Carbuncle Cup, awarded to the ugliest building of the year.

For a Council that boasts of its guardianship of the City's heritage, and for a University proud of its historic buildings and collection of award-winning contemporary architecture, this fiasco has been a disaster.

But a disaster that both Council and University have been inclined to ride out, rather than put right.

'Highly sensitive' heritage landscape 'substantially adversely impacted'

The EIA is damning, and vindicates what residents have been saying for two years: that an EIA should have been done in the first place, while the buildings are too tall and have caused unacceptable harm.

Four "high sensitivity" heritage and landscape views are judged to have been "substantially adversely impacted", the highest level of damage planning-speak allows.

This is a far cry from Oxford University's Planning Statement in 2011, that "Following careful assessment, it has been concluded that the development will not be visible from the majority of Port Meadow."

Or indeed Oxford City Council's Planning Officer, who dismissed the idea of an EIA in 2012 as the site was not "particularly environmentally sensitive", and the development "gives rise to some impacts but these are not significant."

The EIA calls for significant mitigation, with options ranging from brick cladding and planting more trees as a minimum, to additionally removing the top storey. Oxford University has at least accepted the need for mitigation, at its own expense.

The risk of a dangerous precedent

Campaigners are adamant that the cladding and trees are not enough - the EIA itself says it will not reduce the impact in winter when the trees are not in leaf, and it will take decades for them to grow. Even then they will not screen the full height.

But unsurprisingly, both the University and City Council Planning Department have rushed to lobby for this option. They argue, after the fact, that the harm is justified by the contribution of the extra rooms to the Council's policy of limiting students in private housing to 3,000.

Campaigners, however, ridicule this claim. The University was already on track to have more than enough accommodation to meet that target before this development was even approved, and removal of the top storey, which would reduce the impact significantly to "moderate", would cost the University only 38 rooms.

Now all eyes are on what happens next. When the damage is clearly visible to all, what difference will a retrospective EIA make? Needless to say, a complete storey off the buildings is the minimum campaigners are willing to accept.

If the mitigation does not match the damage done and the cheapest screening option is approved, it will set a terrible precedent. There is no question the buildings would not have been approved if the EIA had been done in the first place.

The University will have got away with flouting planning procedures, and the City Council with being negligent in not ensuring an EIA happened.

Port Meadow, Oxford's 'jewel in the crown', desecrated

On the face of it, this should have been straightforward. Oxford has a pressing housing shortage, and the University is building accommodation where it can to relieve student pressure on the housing stock.

The site in question was 30-year-old railway sidings, surely not a controversial spot for some in-fill development, notwithstanding concern about contamination?

Except that the site was next to Port Meadow - 'the jewel' in Oxford's 'crown' of real countryside, green open spaces and natural areas that follow its river valleys and floodplains, as the Council itself would have it.

Port Meadow is the most magnificent stretch of common land beside the Thames, a rural retreat within a stone's throw of the city's bustle, untouched for thousands of years.

It is also one of the most heavily protected sites in the country, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, even recorded in the Domesday Book, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Views from Port Meadow and the Thames towpath of the city's 'Dreaming Spires' were another heritage landscape, protected by designated 'view cones' in the City Development Plan.

In 2002 the University secured planning permission for modest three-storey accommodation blocks on the site. But when construction started unannounced in 2012, residents were aghast to see a wall of eight five-storey blocks rise to obscure the city-scape views and dominate the meadow, ruining for good the countryside atmosphere that was its charm.

The design has no redeeming features - "an example of exactly how not to go about" meeting the City's housing needs, as Nick Boles observed. The roofs caught the sun, shooting glare three miles away to the far side of the meadow, and the all-glass fully-lit stairwells polluted the once-dark night.

'There is no justification for this harm'

Thousands signed a petition, and a Save Port Meadow Campaign group got organised. It is a campaign that has kept the issue alive in the media for the last two years, and has kept an enraged constituency engaged and active through social media and email.

The campaign's goals have been simple: to see the harm undone to Port Meadow, and to hold the perpetrators, the Council and the University, to account.

After a string of Freedom of Information requests and, in response to campaign pressure, the Council commissioned a review of its own handling of the planning process.

It emerged that plans 50% larger than those originally approved were put past the planning committee, justifying minimal consultation on the grounds it was a variation on existing permission.

Councillors had voted 7-1 in favour, with one abstention, later claiming they had been misled with insufficient information and hadn't understood the drawings, while insisting the planning officers had done nothing wrong.

The Council's own Heritage advice, that "there is no justification for this harm", was not even presented to them. The Council responded to "lessons learnt" by instituting a Design Panel, and piloting 'Swiss Poles' - balloons on sticks to show the height of proposed new buildings.

Meanwhile, it was clear the University had been 'economical with the truth' in its planning application, denying the presence of contamination that would have triggered more rigorous environmental assessment.

Neighbouring residents had no notice whatsoever. Community groups were not consulted. Adding insult to injury, the Council and University peddled untruthfully the line that they had consulted properly and extensively - until the Council Review confirmed otherwise.

"It's difficult to see precisely what is getting people so exercised", said Bob Price, Leader of the Council - a fairly typical example of the Council's attitude to residents' concerns.

University occupies contaminated site 'at its own risk'

Given the precious and sensitive nature of Port Meadow, rather than take the precaution of insisting the University conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment, the Council decided not to bother.

In spite of thinking about it, they decided not to bother consulting English Heritage either. And so the buildings went up, bigger than anyone expected, without anyone knowing, next to a site nationally significant for its ecological sensitivity and heritage.

Unsurprisingly, this case has raised questions about how hand-in-glove the City Council and Oxford University operate, and who represents whom, though there is no joined up development strategy to speak of.

Many City Councillors are employed by the University, including the previous lead for City Development, who jumped from his role after the last local elections before his own embarrassed party pushed him.

The accommodation blocks are now occupied by students, even though there are planning conditions that haven't been signed off, including some relating to contamination.

The Council has taken no enforcement action, saying occupation is at the University's own risk. The University took that at face value, with rooms in one building being left vacant to monitor contamination in the hardcore foundations.

Campaigners' Judicial Review at the High Court

The Save Port Meadow Campaign, in partnership with the local Campaign to Protect Rural England, went to the High Court over the failure to do an EIA, to seek a Judicial Review of the decision. Hundreds of people chipped in the £37,000 raised to cover the costs.

In October 2013 the Judge did not grant a Judicial Review, as Oxford University came forward offering to do a retrospective EIA - the first of its kind. But the Judge refused to award the Council's costs against the Campaign, reflecting his view that the Campaign's case had merit. Court case lost, battle won.

That EIA, which normally takes a couple of months when done before buildings go up, has taken a year, and running to over 1,000 pages of documents, is comprehensive.

Now it is out for public consultation before going back to the City Council's planning committee. Had it been done in the first place, the EIA would have been expected to identify all the negative impacts of plans so that the Council could judge whether the harm is justifiable or not, or set parameters to the development.

It's hard to believe eight five-storey blocks would have survived that process, for the net gain of just 85 extra student beds.

Insisting on a lowering in height

But coming after the fact of their construction, all bets are off. Mitigation will cost money. The University, sitting on billions of Oxford Appeal funds raised for its own glory, is sitting tight - arguing it got planning permission, and has acted in good faith.

As for why Oxford residents deserve to suffer such a cheap and shoddy design that would disgrace an out-of-town industrial estate, when Oxford's ancient colleges hire world-class architects for their own college buildings - don't ask!

Now the City Council is hiding behind its Planning Review, which however critical, concluded they did nothing illegal. Councillors have been complaining that it is time to "learn lessons" - and move on, swiftly.

However, holding them to account means expecting them to do something about it, not just shrug their shoulders.

As campaigners wait to see what the EIA consultation holds and what the response will be, the prevarication of the Oxford City Council and Oxford University and their failure to take responsibility has just strengthened the campaigners' resolve.

 


 

Matthew Sherrington is a charity consultant, a resident of Oxford and a member of the Save Port Meadow Campaign group.

Campaign updates: email saveportmeadow@gmail.com

Support the campaign at www.justgiving.com/portmeadow/

 

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