Oxfordshire Green Party have been opposed to a major shopping development at the Westgate from the earliest proposals put forward. This land is public land, and was historically housing. The basis for the decision to make this an area for commercial development rests on an idea that Oxford should be more regionally commercially competitive; but we believe that this is not the best use of this central, piece of precious public land.
In Oxford city centre, where thousands of residents live, study and work, an acute and chronic shortage of affordable housing impacts significantly on people from all walks of life except the most wealthy.
We believe that most of the thousands of local people are unaware of this consultation. Many people who will be affected never go to the current Westgate shopping centre where a limited consultation took place. The Oxford Mail and Times have given the impression that what is proposed is going to come about and have not accentuated the fact that there is currently a consultation to determine whether or not this development should go ahead. It is assumed this development will go ahead. What does this say about Oxford’s democratic processes? This is a very major development and it is depressing living in a city where major developments are assumed to have the green light before they have been considered by our elected members.
The Need for Residential Development, particularly Affordable Housing
This proposal does nothing to meet the enormous and urgent need for more housing in Oxford, particularly affordable housing. This is a terrible missed opportunity. It proposes about 27 units of housing whilst removing 14 purpose-built units at Abbey Place (which are Council owned and therefore publicly owned, bought with public money). It is not clear how much of the new build would be affordable housing but the amount would be minuscule compared to the need, and compared to the space potentially available on this accessible site which is immediately surrounded by housing. Housing would also generate far less traffic than the scheme on the table, with homes near work and facilities. Housing would be in keeping with the surrounding area. What is proposed will dwarf surrounding housing areas, fill local streets with traffic, worsen the already bad air pollution for example on Thames Street in St Thomas’s and St Ebbes, and means cutting down all the now almost maturing trees planted behind the current multi-storey car park .which were put there to soften views for good reason.
Proposed Retail Uses
We expect you have made an upbeat assessment of retail potential though planning guidance on shopping extension in town centres and current rules make any assessments unlikely to influence any planning decision.
We are extremely sceptical of the benefits of this proposal and even of its viability for a number of reasons.
The increase in internet shopping, and the fact that people are not going to buy more and more indefinitely. We understand you are hoping to provide “a new type of shopping” in this context. What that will be and how it will be achieved is at present completely untested.
All the surrounding county towns and major centres have grown to take on and provide for shopping needs external to Oxford’s needs for its residents.
Oxford’s existing shopping centre has not suffered many empty town centre shops like many towns, although the small businesses that give Oxford charm and uniqueness could well be threatened by this scale of proposal. Empty shops could easily become a feature of Oxford, to its cultural and social detriment. Has it been noted what the impact is of such malls on existing shopping centres in other cities, eg. Basingstoke.
Predictions of economic austerity and low economic growth continue. At the same time homelessness and insecure housing issues (eg. sofa surfing) are rising rapidly in Oxford.
Who is going to be able to afford to work in these shops? Shop workers won’t be able to afford to live near their place of work. Where will they live? How will they travel to work?
We understand that research has shown a large number of young people and tourists are attracted to Oxford as a cultural and leisure centre, and suspect you may be seeking backers and providers to concentrate more on this aspect if the retail uptake is not good. In fact your own documents how that the primary reason people visit Oxford is not to shop but attracted by the heritage angle of Oxford. We are wary of the effect of cinema provision on existing cinemas. Oxford has good cinemas already and there is no particular call for increased cinema provision. Indeed with a vast growth in home viewing of films cinemas can find it hard to survive. We consider the Castle quarter with its cafés is more in line with the cultural and heritage character of Oxford and if the Westgate is to be developed commercially, this needs to be promoted in any redevelopment of the Westgate area. If this is likely to end up as some sort of major leisure and tourist operation the implications of this and its impact on Oxford need to be made clearer. For a start it could mean traffic going alone Botley and Abingdon Roads and Thames St/Oxpens Road late into the evenings.
We await research on the flooding implications. We were not satisfied with the measures taken over flooding in previous applications. It seem as if it is not taken seriously that displacing large amounts of ground water can increase flooding risk in adjacent areas. Building car park storeys underground in this sensitive area immediately adjacent to west and south Oxford, both of which are residential areas substantially prone to floodingseems utter folly and uncaring towards the many residents of these areas.
Traffic Noise, Congestion and Pollution.
Although we believe this proposal involves similar levels of parking as at present and in previous applications, we know that in order to justify all this commercial floor-space increased traffic and turnover of parking spaces will be necessary, or the current proposal will not be financially viable. The current car parking is only two thirds utilised and often for long periods. The proposed development relies on all parking spaces fully utilised for as many hours of the day as possible. Traffic pollution at levels above (in some residential places on routes that will be heavily used dangerously above) EU safety levels is already known as an ongoing fact in surrounding streets and many parts of the Botley and Abingdon Roads. Thames St and St Thomas’s area are also polluted to dangerous levels. Certainly the Botley and Abingdon Roads, already busy and suffering tailbacks will be more congested. More traffic means more noise. Huge numbers of lorries and other heavy traffic during construction will cause enormous problems. Should the development get up and running there will be endless motorised traffic coming in and going out of Oxford. We believe this to be unacceptable environmentally and is a strong reason for refusal of application
Foreground to Historic Views
Information is inadequate to assess this and the current Oxpens Masterplan’s effect on views into this part of the city from Boars Hill and Rayleigh Park, and the importance of this part to the foreground not only in terms of height but of massing. We are sceptical that it will improve a view already quite prejudiced by cranes and earlier decisions. We will be extremely sorry to see the now handsome trees on the site come down. These trees were planted to soften the exisiting Westgate centre’s impact and are only just beginning to do so. The height and mass of the proposed new buildings are massive, alienating in their scale, and dwarf exisiing housing in the vicinity.
Because we have fundamental objections we have not a great deal to say about what is proposed. We understand that covered malls are becoming less popular; people enjoy being outside in the fresh air most of the time. We general welcome carefully drawn up plans for the removal of buses from Queen Street but regret that no attention has been given to an east west cycle route.
Oxfordshire Green Party objects to the proposals to commercially re-develop and extend the Westgate retail centre as proposed for the following reasons: increase in traffic in already congested and polluted local streets, no need locally for huge new shopping malls, flooding risks of building underground in this area, need for affordable housing on this public land, ruination of views locally and from further away, and the detrimental impact this centre would have on other retail and leisure facilites in Oxford city centre.
OXFORDSHIRE GREEN PARTY
Chair: Sushila Dhall
Secretary: Judy Chipchase