On a clear day you can see to the multiplex

February 9, 1996

The citizens of Oxford may soon see new bingo halls, bowling alleys and car parks among their dreaming spires. Lucy Hodges asks whether colleges keen to profit from their land are responsible.

Oxford, said Oscar Wilde, remains the most beautiful thing in England. "Nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made into one." What would Wilde make of Oxford today, its glistening spires surrounded by new development, its green fields fast disappearing, its narrow streets clogged with buses?

As Mike Woodin, Balliol academic and the city's only Green councillor, says of the city now: "The unique character, environment and functions of Oxford are being gradually smothered by a relentless tide of purely profit-driven, off-the-peg commercial development and the snarling traffic which it brings."

Local residents are protesting about what they see as a blitz of overdevelopment: a plan for a "leisure village" near the heart of Oxford; a string of industrial buildings, car parks and bijou homes along the canal corridor in place of the wilderness that exists now; a new road to provide access to part of the canal corridor site; a huge new housing development and Oxford United stadium in Blackbird Leys on the edge of the city; and so on. The list of projected developments is, seemingly, endless.

Some observers point an accusing finger at the university, complaining that it does little to protect one of the most important cities in Britain. They note that some colleges have been distressingly keen to sell off land to hungry developers to boost their coffers. Reg Cave, retired head of the school of architecture at Oxford Brookes University, says there has been deathly silence from colleges and professors about what has been happening to the city. "They don't care," he says. "Their general philosophy is if you don't see it from the senior common room windows, anything goes."

Oxford is a city divided between town and gown, between the Cowley car works in the east and the leafy Victorian Gothic of north Oxford, between a council which has been Labour-dominated for 23 years and privileged academics, accountants and lawyers.

These are stereotypes (the council, for instance, has its fair share of academic members) but they exist in people's minds. Many observers say that the city council does not understand Oxford's historical and architectural place in the world. And that if it did, it would not have put forward the "leisure village" plan for a nine-screen multiplex cinema (to hold 2,000 people), a bingo hall, night club (to hold 1,800 people), bowling alley, three restaurants and a pub.

The Oxford Preservation Trust refers to the plan as "shed city" on account of its design. The aesthete Roy Strong has said the proposals make him weep. Robert Gasser, bursar of Brasenose College, who is also a Liberal Democrat city councillor, calls them "wholly inappropriate". He adds: "I accept that architecture is very subjective, but it seems to me that the quality of the architecture here is not up to what one would expect in a major historic European city." Neither he nor the other critics are against developing the Oxpens site (the proposed location of the leisure village). "I think this site is ripe for development," he says. "But it can only be done once in three or four generations so it is very important to get it right."

No one seems to have a good word for the look of the development. John Patten, former education secretary and one of the local MPs, describes it as "downmarket Disneyland" and says it is an "aesthetic catastrophe". The plan is to build it in St Ebbe's behind the ice rink and fronting the Thames on land which is currently used for a coach park and recreation ground.

One of the problems is that people live close by. Bernard Rowe, chairman of the St Ebbes New Development Residents' Association, protests that the leisure village would attract large numbers of people from out of Oxford, creating noise, traffic and pollution. It would also interfere with the famous views of Oxford.

"Instead of the dreaming spires which you see at the moment from the train, you would have a God-awful shed thing which is about 15 metres higher than the existing icerink," he says. "It would be an absolute blot on the horizon. The Japanese who come to see the ancient stone city would be appalled."

Such has been the outcry that the Royal Fine Arts Commission is now stepping in to comment on the scheme, and a decision by the city's planning committee has been deferred until March 8.

The canal corridor development north of the station worries local people too, though the land along this stretch comprises six or seven different parcels of land owned separately. Outline planning permission has been granted for the former Lucy's Foundry on which it is proposed to build 199 executive homes. Residents are worried about the height and bulk of buildings and whether they will spoil the view.

On another site, owned by Unipart (the company that makes car parts), plans are afoot for a development comprising residential, office and business space which would require 1,000 parking spaces. The concern here is that that would substantially increase traffic on the Woodstock Road. To gain access to the southern bit of this site it is hoped to build a spine road parallel to the canal through what Balliol academic Mike Woodin calls "a regenerated wonderful bit of wilderness".

At present Jericho and this part of Oxford is a cul de sac. The other side of the canal is Port Meadow, one of the city's sublime walking spots. "It is a very peaceful area," says George Monbiot, a writer and former fellow of Green College. His fear, and those of critics like him, is that development will transform it, take away its charm and leave it unattractively modernised, bursting with cars, businesses, and people.

An Oxford college, St John's, owns one of the parcels of land on the canal corridor. At present it is growing wild. It is thought the college would like to see the site developed. But Anthony Boyce, the college's principal bursar, was not able to speak to The THES about this matter nor about recent hearings over Oxford's Green Belt when St John's lobbied for land it owned to be released for development. It failed in that attempt, but people think the college will try again.

Another sensitive site, owned by Worcester College inside the ring road, is being watched closely too. Comprising 12 acres, it is a field on which cows graze next to a park and ride car park. If the college sold it, there is no question it would benefit handsomely. Big supermarket chains are known to be interested in building, but the land is safeguarded so planning applications have so far failed.

"I think it will have cows on it for the foreseeable future," says David King, bursar of Worcester College. "There's no possibility of planning permission to do anything on that site."

Woodin reckons that most Oxford academics are probably worried about what is happening to the character of the city. It is the colleges that are to blame for putting their financial self-interest ahead of their aesthetic sense, he says. "Colleges own a lot of land and are trying to nibble away at the Green Belt and flood plain. They leave everything to their bursars." But King strongly refutes suggestions that college bursars are responsible for the rape of Oxford's architectural heritage. It might be true occasionally that greater priority has been given to financial rather than aesthetic considerations, he says. But college decisions are made by governing bodies comprising individuals. Those individuals frequently make up their own minds. "Academics are not people who can be driven along a party line," he says.

Not surprisingly, Robert Gasser rejects the charge about bursars too. It is a cheap gibe, he says. He invokes a new residential development put up by Brasenose as an example of what colleges are doing. It was done in collaboration with local residents and its architecture was widely acclaimed.

And what about the role played by the city? To what extent does the town/gown divide create problems? Gasser says: "There is no doubt that the amenities offered to the students are of a much higher calibre than the city is able to offer to other young people living in Oxford." Thus it is understandable that the council wants to improve leisure facilities. It is also true that the council wants to create jobs to make a dent on the local unemployment figures. The trouble is that jobs and leisure bring more traffic to a city already clogged with traffic.

Dermot Roaf, fellow of Exeter College and leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Oxfordshire County Council, argues that part of the city's planning problems are caused by the town/gown divide. Most of the unemployment is in the east of the city, location of the Cowley car plant. In recent years as many as 20,000 jobs have been lost, and city councillors are keen to do all they can to replace them. Why shouldn't some of these jobs, argue city councillors, be created in leafy north Oxford along the string of canal developments?

Roaf objects that there are enough jobs in north Oxford and that half the people who work in the city travel in from outside. Creating more as planned would simply damage the environment, he says. Instead Roaf advocates creating new jobs in the county towns of Didcot, Banbury and Bicester. "That's the way to reduce traffic," he says.

New College fellow Michael Treisman argues that the city council is schizophrenic in its planning. On the one hand it is pursuing a development strategy which will lure more shoppers and more traffic into the city; on the other it is poised to introduce a pedestrianisation scheme which would keep traffic out. The latter would have a "devastating" effect on the university, he says, because it would lead to greatly increased congestion on the roads that cars are allowed to use.

To an outsider it seems extraordinary that city planners could have let the leisure village get on to the drawing board. The critics say the planners allow themselves to be dictated to by developers. How much weight does the city attach to economic development and how much to protecting Oxford's heritage?

Environmental services director Mike Walker replies that there is enormous pressure for development in a place like Oxford. As a well-positioned city containing superb resources, it did not suffer from the recession. In fact, the city's prosperity is obvious to the visitor. Oxford is close to international airports and at the hub of various road networks. It has a world-renowned university, a centre of medical excellence and it will continue to make Rover cars. "All this means pressure for development," says Walker. The planners try to balance what is needed for development against Oxford's heritage.

The problem, according to the critics, is that the planners have not been very careful in their balancing of development against conservation. One issue around which the city, the university and environmentally concerned residents have finally united is traffic control. A plan to close off the High Street and part of Broad Street to traffic during the day, and to ban buses from Cornmarket Street, looks as though it is finally off the ground.

It will mean traffic being pushed through Longwall Street and South Parks Road (the university's science area) but it is being seen as the start of a radical shift of priorities away from the car and towards protecting the environment. If town and gown can agree on this, there is no reason why they should not come together to prevent a medieval city being ruined by insensitive development. And then Oscar Wilde's comparison of Oxford to "an exquisite flower, born of the beauty of life" may apply again.

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