Oxford City Council and the Oxford University are coming under increasing pressure from the “Save Port Meadow Campaign” ahead of the 19 December deadline for submissions to the Council’s consultation regarding mitigation of the “substantial harm” to the setting of many of Oxfords historic buildings and views caused by the building of the now infamous “Castle Mill Blocks” of student accommodation. It was alleged that the five story blocks, which were occupied this Autumn, were built in breach of various aspects of planning law and guidelines and a vociferous local campaign led by the “Save Port Meadow Campaign” assisted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England [CPRE], culminated in the threat of a Judicial Review. Faced with the suggestion that planning conditions had not been fully complied with because the University had not submitted an Environmental Statement, the University volunteered to commission a retrospective Environmental Statement from Pearson Associates, the results of which were published in October 2014.
Of the twenty five historic sites and views assessed, the Environmental Statement found that the blocks had a “high adverse impact” on Port Meadow itself, the Oxford skyline, the Thames and the listed St Barnabas Church in the Jericho area of the City. In addition eight other heritage sites suffered a medium adverse impact and a further nine sites a low adverse impact. A total of twenty two in all. The report also proposed potential mitigation ranging from the demolition of the blocks to masking and cladding to blend in the buildings against the background. The report can also be seen against the revelation, reported in March 2014 by the Oxford Mail, that Nick Worlledge, Leader of the Council’s Heritage Team submitted a report highlighting the very threat to the city skyline that the ES has found before planning permission was granted. Mr Worlledge wrote
“The assessment of the view explains that the skyline is fragile and its significance harmed by new building that would compete by virtue of their scale and form or by obscuring views…this would be a harmful impact that on its own would erode the heritage values the views hold.
“There is no justification for this harm.”
Mr Worllidge’s report was presented just three weeks before planning permission was granted in February 2012, but it was never passed on to the Oxford West Planning Committee by senior planning officers. The Council claimed that this was because the University subsequently reduced the height of the blocks by 1.2m, thus dealing with the concerns Mr Worllidge expressed and rendering an Environmental Statement unnecessary.
The campaigners against the Port Meadow blocks are urging their supporters to endorse Option Three of the Environmental Statement which involves removing one whole floor from six of the eight five story buildings to reduce the impact on Oxford’s skyline as well as reducing the height of the roof lines and adding cladding to camouflage and blend in the buildings against the background, all at a cost estimated to be around £12 million. A stance seemingly supported by the summary of the Pearson EIA which states
“Mitigation measures designed to address some of these impacts have beneficial effects, but it is considered that the ‘high adverse’ impacts on the high heritage value sites can only be reduced to ‘medium adverse’ by the reduction in
height of all the buildings under the option 3 mitigation measures set out in the Design Mitigation Strategy.”
However, the campaigners are concerned that the Council will adopt the much less costly Option One which relies on screening the blocks with trees and adding cladding. A response which the campaigners deem to be totally inadequate, not least because the trees would only screen the site when they are in leaf. This has led to the CPRE suggesting further legal moves may be explored if the University does not follow Option Three.