The Oxfordshire Green Party has responded to the draft independent report on the Roger Dudman Way carbuncle.
Oxfordshire Green Party welcomes the fact that this review has been arranged, as it is an opportunity to look at the end result of what ought to have been water-tight procedures, and to identify failings and errors in the planning process which allowed such a result to be the outcome.
The result we are focussing on is the Oxford University Roger Dudman Way graduate student blocks, which are an unacceptable outcome for a number of reasons: they are too high and tall, too wide, too brightly coloured and reflective of light, they blot out the cherished and supposedly protected view of the Grade I listed St Barnabas Tower from the SSSI that is Port Meadow, they intrude devastatingly into the ‘protected’ ‘view cone’ from Wolvercote, and light pollution spills from them across Port Meadow from dusk onwards. Mitigation of their impact is at best severely limited by the fact that no trees could grow tall enough to conceal the buildings, the roof is shiny and reflects light from many miles away, the buildings are ugly from every angle, and anyway the view of the spires cannot be restored by any ‘mitigation’.
Specifically going through the report we have a number of comments:
3 bullet points are listed, all of which presume Oxford City Council has only and always acted as it saw best, and not one of these even hints that there were flaws in the planning process on this occasion.
SECTION A: APPROACH TO THE REVIEW
- Purpose of the review: good questions are asked, and the areas covered by the review are appropriate; however these are undermined by the assumption from the outset that had anything been different this would not have led to a different outcome (the RDW in its present form not being granted permission by West Area Planning Committee (WAPC)). This is a flawed assumption because the purpose of the review is to analyse the processes that led to the decision so that such a result is not in future the outcome of the planning processes. What we have now (RDW) is the outcome of those processes as they were applied in this instance.
- Approach to the review: relating to the previous point; if lessons can be learned that prevent such an outcome in the future why is it assumed that any changes in approach would not have led to a different outcome on this occasion?
- Consultation process on the review: the roundtable sessions were also attended by members. Therefore this should read ‘four (not three) groups of interest’. This is necessary to add for the purpose of accuracy and also because there were numerous complaints from local and amenity groups about members’ inclusion at this point as it was felt that others could not speak freely, and also a lot of precious time was taken up with Councillors’ input and resulting clashes of opinion when it was known that members would have other opportunities for input where local residents and amenity groups would not be present.
- Best practice: as the result of the planning process in this case led to an outcome that is as far from ‘best practice’ as it could be we fail to see why this should form a consideration at all in this review. We would like to think that it need not be stated but can be assumed that best practice should normally be applied to all the work of our City Council planning department.
- Local planning context: paragraph 27 lists 3 policy requirements which should have been taken into account; we note that none of these appear to have been taken into account.
- Additional questions raised through the consultation: matters relating to the Petition that went before the City Council in December 2012: it is assumed that these matters ‘are being dealt with’; however it is far from clear whether these are actually in hand or whether a certain amount of window dressing is going on Eg. Can the impact of the RDW blocks indeed be mitigated? What then happens, or should happen, if the EIA points to a presumption against allowing development to go ahead in its current form? We feel these fundamental questions need to be asked.
SECTION D: PLANNING PROCEDURES
- Assessment of planning processes: (a) Pre-application process: We are glad to see that failures are identified and improvements in terms of clarity in pre-application discussions are recommended. This would also strengthen democratic accountability in such applications. Should more clarity have been required at the time it would not have been such a fight requiring numerous FOI requests to get basic information or to find that basic information (such as minutes of crucial meetings) had not been recorded.
- The Registration of Application: We are glad to read that in this case ‘The submitted information was not adequate in various ways’ and believe that had it been adequate, it is possible that the development would not have been approved, at least in its current form.
- EIA screening: It is incorrect to state that ‘An EIA was undertaken by the applicant before submission’. Had this been the case then the impact of the blocks would have been apparent and we do not believe the application would have been permitted, at least in its current form.
- It is incorrect to say that the challenge on this basis ‘has been dismissed by the High Court’. On the contrary the Judge took the view that it was only because Oxford University had accepted that they should now carry out a ‘voluntary ‘EIA that the case would not at this point proceed to Judicial Review. The Judge asked questions which forced representatives of Oxford University to state in court that their ‘voluntary’ EIA would cover such aspects as light pollution, soil contamination, and other visual impacts, and representatives of Oxford City Council likewise had to agree to not rule out any action emerging from a proper EIA, which should not, since this time, really be referred to as ‘voluntary’ as they since that time have been bound to carry it out.
- We are glad to read that it is accepted that ‘the planning statement by the applicant did not address the issue’ of the need for an EIA; and submit that this could be flagged up in this review as an error in the planning process.
- The ‘conflation’ of the impact of the RDW blocks with the idea that ‘mitigation’ could be provided, has been catastrophic and we believe that this cannot be stated too strongly as this is the basis for the current damage to the views from and atmosphere of Port Meadow. We welcome the recommendation of training for officers on this point and hope it will be taken extremely seriously; however again we point out that had this been better understood and carried out the outcome could well have been very different.
SECTION E: CONSULTATION PROCESS
- it is noted that the statutory requirements for consultation would have been greater if the application had required an EIA to be undertaken; we submit that due to the impact on the view cones and the views of the Grade I listed St Barnabas Church tower (even if not on the celebrated Dreaming Spires view) an EIA should have been undertaken before the plans were submitted in their final form, and that this would have stopped the plans from being submitted in the form which was approved.
- It is not stated that one of the reasons why local residents and users of Port Meadow did not realise that such a building could be permitted was the huge amount of consultation and amendments that went into the Berkeley Homes development (‘Waterside’) north of the RDW blocks. This was specifically done to ensure that views from Port Meadow were protected, indeed this consideration was of paramount importance with the developer forced to scale down proposals that would have intruded onto Port Meadow or blocked views of the spires. The fact that this was the history meant that people were lulled into a false sense of security and believed that the City Council would be consistent in protecting views from Port Meadow. The question was not asked: Why was one developer (Oxford University) allowed to build blocks that devastate views from Port Meadow when another (Berkeley Homes) was not? We believe this question needs to be asked.
- Best Practice: one of the conclusions the Inspector reaches is that (90) ‘…Members could be made more aware of major projects by reporting the completion of Planning Performance Agreements…’, however a vital question is not asked here, which is that if members were aware (as the report concludes the majority were) of the visual impact of the proposal then why did no local member seek to alert members of the public? (eg. by posting something in local newsletters or informing groups that they attended at the time, especially as they would have been expected to note that attendance at consultation events was very low and that feedback omitted to mention impacts on views (the obvious conclusion at this point having been that residents and local groups were for the most part completely unaware of the proposals and their scale and impact)).
- Para 93 blames ‘individuals, communities and organisations’ for a ‘failure’ ‘to understand the scale and location of what was proposed’. This is shocking, because no failure is attributed to the protagonists (those who would be expected to protect the interests of and keep informed individuals, communities and organisations ie. the City Council (members and officers) and to perhaps a lesser extent, the developer). That the ‘failure’ is only attributed to the people who did not know about the proposed development is akin to ‘blaming the victim’.
- The recommendations could be extended to include the stated fact that these things are what did not happen, and more importantly, that had they taken place the development, at least in its current form, would not have been permitted due to far greater awareness of the scale and impact of the blocks.
SECTION E: VISUAL IMPACT AND DESIGN ISSUES
The analysis of the problems, which are key to the heart of this inquiry and the driver for it, is good, as is the clear way what was put before members of WAPC is described; unfortunately the report goes on immediately to the issue of Best Practice and to what extent this was followed. The City Council is referred to as ahead in Best Practice. What is lacking is an analysis of how if that is the case all the documents informing Council policy (including policy HE 10 (view cone policy), policy CS 18 (quality of Urban Design) the relevant parts of the Core Strategy, and the accompanying Planning Statement appear to have been ignored in this particular case. The final recommendation is little more than an exhortation to the Council to ‘strengthen’ what is already praised as ‘at the forefront of thinking and policy…in its efforts to manage the setting of its historical assets’. This is an opportunity missed and akin to slowly shutting the stable door after all horses have long bolted and indeed vanished from sight over the horizon, never to return. We consider this a fudging of the most key part of the review.
- Para 147 outlines some of the visual impact issues Councillors had before them. The issue of the misleading sentence ‘will not be visible from the majority of Port Meadow’ is omitted from consideration in this review. There are errors in this part of the draft review: Oxford University had not lowered the roofs by 1.2m (or at all), but merely removed the apexes of the roofs which made no difference to the height of the roofs; the University had not attempted to make the colours or forms of the blocks ‘sit more comfortably with views from Port Meadow’; the view of St Barnabas would not have been impacted on to the same degree by the extant permission which was lower, red brick, and had a space between buildings designed as a floodwater area, through which St Barnabas Tower would from some points have been seen entirely as it was before the development; on and off-site planting could never conceal these buildings as they are too tall, and anyway there is no room on-site for planting and no permission for off-site planting, except for on Port Meadow itself where trees planted in haste were trampled by cattle, and where new trees would compete for space with existing willows which are suitable for a floodplain site in the way that very few species are; views have ‘changed dramatically’ and are indeed ‘adversely impacted’. These errors in judgement need further scrutiny. But they are described as leading to ‘assumptions and assertions’ of error or omissions. It is with sorrow that we note that submissions from Oxford University and the City Council are accepted by this review as facts, where submissions from objectors are referred to as ‘assertions’.
- It is accepted that light spillage across Port Meadow and the impact on William Lucy Way were not covered before the development started, and it is assumed that they will be covered in the currently ongoing EIA therefore need not form part of this review. We do not accept that they should be left out of this review as they form a material part of what has driven this review in the first place.
- Advance tree felling: it seems to us that if undertakings ‘have been given to prevent recurrences’ of this then it should be clearly stated that this was unacceptable.
- We welcome the statement (para 164) that says the report (to WAPC) was not as clear as it could have been, but would wish to see ‘could’ replaced with ‘should’. Otherwise what is to stop this from happening again?
- The Heritage Officer’s report/warning that was left out of the report, and that was therefore not seen by members of WAPC: the concerns of the Heritage Officer were not followed up except by the absurd removal of 1.2m roof apexes which did not address concerns raised. We believe that this whole episode misled members, as had the report been included, and the removal of the roof apexes formed part of the report, questions would have been raised which could well have resulted in a different outcome, with the buildings as we see them today possibly not approved, at least in their current form. We believe that had the Heritage Officer either attended the meeting of WAPC where the proposal was considered, or his report been circulated at this meeting, the outcome would likely have been different, with the proposal refused or at least modified to protect views of the spires/St Barnabas Tower.
- Re para 179: the choice before the committee would not have differed had information given to members been clearer, but it is not the case that the only difference in outcome would have been less questioning of the decision after construction had started. The questioning of the decision comes for many reasons: eg. a lack of knowledge that this major development was in the pipeline, shock at its impact, dissatisfaction with various aspects of the process, a perceived lack of Council transparency, a sense that different developers are treated differently by the Council etc.
- para 180, that it was said the development would be seen ‘to an extent’ is typical of the misleading nature of statements read by members, implying that it would not be seen from everywhere on Port Meadow and that it would not intrude devastatingly into views from all over Port Meadow. It is not just that the choice of materials used have not ameliorated their impact.
- Recommendations: para 181 is confusing in that it says: ‘the form of reporting was not of itself misleading.’ What does ‘of itself’ mean? Was the form of reporting misleading in any sense? If so this needs to be stated clearly.
- We find the recommendations somewhat weak in that they ask for strengthening and clarifying in planning reports but do not judge that the reports in this case were weak and unclear in any way, we are left to surmise that this is what is meant.
SECTION G: GROUND CONTAMINATION AND PLANNING CONDITIONS
This section describes how the planning application form stated that the ground was not contaminated. It is explained that this was an error, however it is also pointed out that once the error came to light it was not corrected. Whether or not this has led to exposure to contaminants for the workers or residents of the student units is a side issue for the purpose of this review; what is the issue is that again this would have misled members who were deciding whether to approve the application.
SECTION H: WIDER IMPLICATIONS
We welcome the recognition that the pre-application process needs strengthening, but we are sorry that this will come too late to protect a most loved and valuable asset, Port Meadow SSSI from degradation. The loss of this place as a valuable amenity is felt keenly by very many people, and the loss of the beloved view of St Barnabas likewise. The residents of William Lucy Way have lost their views and their peace. These things need to be remedied.
SECTION I: GENERAL CONCLUSION
We welcome the final recommendations, and accept that these read to us in the forensically researched and informed way which we have elaborated in this submission indicate that
- pre-application consultation was not proactive enough and Councillors were not involved enough in it
- Best Practice in Visual Impact and Design applied elsewhere in Oxford was not applied here.
- planning committee papers were not clear enough
- EIA screening and land contamination issues were not well co-ordinated or carried out
- Oxford University did not engage well enough with the public in this situation. We agree with this analysis. We accept that this report is forward looking and hopeful that this combination of errors and omissions will not be repeated elsewhere; however we are also hopeful that it will now be accepted that processes fell short in this case and remedial action now needs to be taken.
Sushila Dhall, Chair; Judy Chipchase, Secretary; City Councillor Elise Benjamin, Green Group Planning and Economic Shadow; Oxfordshire Green Party