CASTLE MILL GRADUATE STUDENT ACCOMMODATION, OXFORD
Port Meadow is an ancient area of water meadow by the Thames on the edge of Oxford. Around 300 acres (120 hectares) in area it is still used for grazing cattle and horses, as it has been for 4,000 years. Apart from being an area of Special Scientific Interest (it has never been ploughed up), it has Bronze Age and Iron Age remains which are designated Ancient Monuments. These bare facts show how important it is but don’t give an idea of what a magical place it is. Next to the Thames, covered in buttercups in the summer and mists in the winter, with views across to the ‘Dreaming Spires’ of Oxford University, generations of Oxford folk have used and enjoyed this enormous area of unspoiled land on their doorstep.
Unspoiled that is until late 2012 when local people were appalled to see an enormous white development rising out of the southern part of the meadow. This monstrous collection of barrack-like blocks soon blotted out the Dreaming Spires and began to dominate the view, ruining the atmosphere of isolation the meadow had enjoyed for thousands of years. It transpired that this development of student flats for Oxford University had been given planning permission by the council without any proper consultation with interest groups and residents which is why it was such a shock. Normally for a development that has such a major impact on a SSSI and Ancient Monuments an Environmental Impact Assessment must be made. Astonishingly the Planning Officer, Murray Hancock, stated (in his report which I have seen) that the development was not ‘of more than local significance‘, and was not in a ‘particularly environmentally sensitive location‘. It only “…gives rise to some impacts but these are not significant…” Even worse, the Planning Committee did not question this, despite objections to the scheme from their own Heritage Officer, and granted planning consent. The photo below is from a similar viewpoint to those above and it shows how catastrophically wrong Mr Hancock was!
The outrage that people felt about this soon found its expression in the Save Port Meadow Campaign which has become one of the most effective local pressure groups in the country. Together with the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England they have built up public pressure to force the University to commission a retrospective Environmental Impact Assessment which has seldom been done before.
This EIA by a team led by Nicholas Pearson Associates was published in October 2014 as an Environmental Statement. It concluded that the Castle Mill development has a ‘High Adverse Impact’ on four heritage assets: The River Thames, the Oxford skyline, Port Meadow and St Barnabas Church (the tower right of centre in the photo below). In other words everything possible it could harm! I wonder what Mr Hancock, the Planning Officer, has to say about this now as he considered it had an insignificant impact! Is he still employed by the council?
The report proposes three measures to mitigate this damage, the most effective one being Option Three. This knocks off a storey from the tall blocks, lowers the roof lines of others, changes the exterior finish to brick, and provides tree screening. A total of 33 student flats would go (around 10% of the total), a small number in return for partly restoring a heritage and landscape site of international importance. Even this drastic measure only reduces the adverse impact on the heritage assets to ‘Medium’, according to the report.
Needless to say, the University only wants to do the cheapest option which hardly does anything to repair the damage, consisting only of brick cladding and tree planting – the buildings will still block the views of spires and towers and rise above the tree line. The campaign is now concentrating on putting pressure on the council to insist that the University adopts the best option, Option Three. Link below:
Architects: Frankham Consultancy Group. Accused of designing a collection of Travelodge and Premier Inn lookalikes on such an important site. A glance at their website would have shown the University that this is exactly the type of thing to expect from this design group.
The project should not have been given to such a commercial practice and there should have been an international competition for a development overlooking this historic place. A decent architect (yes, there are a few) would have embraced such a project and come up with a scheme that protected the special qualities of the site, retained the views across Oxford, and produced some really fine architecture which is what Port Meadow and Oxford deserved.
There has been much criticism of the Council and University but the people responsible for the appearance of this awful scheme are of course the designers! It is a mystery how they could have come up with something quite so pathetic given a blank sheet of paper and a wonderful site. Why choose white render and shiny grey tin roofs for example, materials which will obviously reflect light? Why line up all the blocks so that they look like barracks? Why have such regimented and hotel-like windows which give the buildings such a cardboard appearance? Why does the famous view over the Oxford skyline have to be totally blotted out? Was there any thought at all given to the setting of these buildings? It is significant that Port Meadow was omitted from their plans of the site! The buildings could have been located anywhere, like an office park outside Basingstoke for example.
Client: Oxford University and Professor Roger Ainsworth, the Chair of the University committee that approves all major building projects. Accused of commissioning these architects instead of any number of better ones to design buildings in such a sensitive location, and showing absolutely no remorse about the act of gross vandalism they have perpetrated. On the contrary they believe that providing more student accommodation (which is rented out don’t forget) is more important than preserving the heritage of Oxford. Link below to the most nauseating self-justification propaganda from the University’s Head of Government and Community Relations, Margaret Ounsley:
A quote from this to show that the University administration simply does not understand the harm it has done to its ‘Community Relations’ (and why Ms Ounsley should not be in her job):
“The Castle Mill story has become – literally – all about one view, neatly sidestepping many other complex factors, including the social and economic benefits brought to the city, and the fact that we are talking about potentially taking away people’s homes here.”
WHAT AN ABSURD COMMENT – THE SAME AMOUNT OF HOMES COULD HAVE BEEN PROVIDED WITHOUT RUINING THE VIEW BY HAVING A DECENT DESIGN! This is the same disgraceful argument that could have been used if the buildings had been built next to an Oxford College!
Oxford City Council: Accused of gross negligence in not demanding an Environmental Impact Assessment for such an important development next to a SSSI and Ancient Monuments, and granting permission so readily for such third-rate architecture without consulting anyone about it. Incredibly, it advised the University that there were no height limits on the site and there would be no objections to a five storey scheme. Equally incredible, accurate visuals showing what impact such a development might have on Port Meadow were neither provided nor asked for. Also accused of letting the University off the hook by not ensuring that planning conditions are met, and of failing to comply with its own Core Strategy which states that historic views must be preserved.
The former Planning Minister Nick Boles (an Oxford graduate) visited the site in January 2014 and said that the blocks were a disgrace, the worst planning fiasco he had seen as Minister, and called upon the Council and University to apologise. Neither has done so and on the contrary they have done everything possible to justify their joint act of vandalism which is, as one critic said, like building a skyscraper next to Stonehenge!
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote his poem ‘Binsey Poplars’ as a lament on the felling of some trees on Port Meadow to make way for a railway line:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
This was just about a few trees going – what would he have written now? He might have been cheered up though by an article in the Oxford Times on the 23rd December:
“Dons could tell university to knock top floor off flats. With the EIA clear on the damage to Port Meadow, and the consultation making it clear on the damage to Oxford University’s reputation, Oxford Professors are taking charge. The University’s governing body will debate a resolution to take one floor off, in February, and any decision is binding on the University’s administration. As the dons make clear, it is not the University at fault here, but the University’s administration in Wellington Square, and Congregation is the place to hold them to account. With the City Council’s West Area Planning Committee scheduled to consider the University’s mitigation offer in February, it’s going to be an interesting new year!”
UPDATE 11th February 2015: disgracefully, the Dons voted by a large majority not to knock the tops off! Rather depressingly OU students held a protest outside the meeting, not against the desecration of one of Oxford’s most historic places by their University, but against changing the buildings because of the cost! There is still a postal vote to come from all the academics not at the meeting, but it is unlikely given OU’s track record so far that they will do anything other than vote for the least effective option.
UPDATE 21st April 2015: no surprise, the postal vote was overwhelmingly in favour of not doing anything much. It is now over to Oxford Council to decide if they want to accept OUs proposals. They have asked for further information from the University to justify their response to the EIA, so watch this space………
UPDATE 21st February 2016: The City planners recommended approval for Option 1, the option that does the least to mitigate this disaster, and unsurprisingly it was approved by the pathetic Council who will always roll over in front of the University. It looks like this long-running and shameful saga is at an end despite the heroic efforts of Matthew Sherrington and the Save Port Meadow Campaign with the CPRE. Oxford University has ruined a lovely part of the city, supported by the very people elected to protect it.
UPDATE 23rd July 2016: The University has come up with some mitigation measures that were put out for public consulation this month. A lot of thought has gone into the proposals and, apart from the fact the buildings will still block out the views over the city skyline, they will help to reduce the impact of this dreadful scheme.
UPDATE 4th April 2018: Planning permission was granted for the mitigation alterations but five years after they were built nothing has been done and the buildings are still an eyesore spoiling the views from Port Meadow.
All opinions and comments, unless otherwise shown, are entirely the writer’s own!
Port Meadow before the vandalism (1) courtesy of Cool Places www.coolplaces.co.uk
Port Meadow before the vandalism (2) courtesy of ‘What a Wonderful Dream’- a really enjoyable site for all things Alice:
View with blocks from Wikimedia Commons, photographer JP Bowen
Option Three illustration from the Castle Mill Environmental Statement, Nicholas Pearson Associates http://www.npaconsult.co.uk/about-news.asp?id=102
All other photographs by me.