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Oxford academics want to lop floors off controversial student flats

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Senior academics at Oxford University have demanded the removal of the top floors of six student housing blocks, which they claim are ‘rudely hogging the views’ of the city’s ‘dreaming spires’

Designed by Kent-based Frankham Consultancy Group, the four and five-storey Castle Mill postgraduate buildings on the edge of Oxford’s Port Meadow have been the centre of ongoing controversy since planning permission was granted for the 312 home project in 2012.

Opposition group Save Port Meadow, as well as many leading academics, claim the £24 million university-backed development blocks key views of Oxford’s famous skyline.

Several notable alumni, including Philip Pullman, have openly voiced their anger over the scheme, describing the buildings as ‘destructive, brutal, ugly vandalism’. As well as its location, the development has also been attacked for its design with former planning minister Nick Bowles commenting that the blocks were one of the ‘worst examples of modern design’ he had ever seen.

Next week the institution’s congregation - the university’s sovereign body which is made up of 5,000 academic and administrative staff - will vote on a formal motion to reduce the height of the blocks.

The move follows the publication late last year of a retrospective environmental impact assessment (EIA) drawn up by independent planning consultants on behalf of the university. The assessment was commissioned after the Council for the Protection of England (CPRE) issued High Court proceedings challenging the city council’s original decision not to request an EIA during the planning process,

The new report proposes three options to limit the development’s impact: the cheapest option to camouflage the buildings with trees and wooden cladding which is favoured by the university; the removal of storeys as called for by campaigner and academics who have since proposed a motion to the university’s congregation to do so; and the remodelling of the roofs, which neither party favours.

The university’s cladding alternative would cost around £6 million, while the proposed beheading option has a £30 million price tag. This estimate includes the £2.5 million in lost rent during the modifications, as well as a further £15.5 million in lost rent as the changes will result in the permanent removal of 38 bedrooms and family units.

A university spokesperson told the AJ that mitigating the loss of units through cladding and planting, would provide ‘benefits to the city [that] outweigh the visual impact [on] the environment’.

However the university has rejected any proposal to lop the top off the flats, saying alterations would cause disruption to the residents and result in a significant loss of rentable units. A university spokesperson warned of the ‘knock-on damage to the city’s hard-pressed property market’, should the changes go ahead.

Oxford University Student Union also opposes the radical changes to the building, saying that remodelling would mean more than 300 students would have to seek alternative and possible more expensive temporary accommodation.

In a recent statement to the congregation, the union urged it to ‘do its duty and spend the University’s money on what we are here to do: on education and on fostering a culture of research’.

On the motion, the university said the requests of the congregation would be carefully considered in line with the university’s regulations.

The congregation will meet next Tuesday to discuss the possible reduction in height of the six blocks, with new recommendations and decisions put out to public consultation before being acted upon.

Previous story (AJ 03.04.13)

Oxford professors slam student residences scheme

A student accommodation scheme in Oxford has been heavily criticised by senior professors at both the city’s universities

The Castle Mill project, designed by Kent-based practice Frankham, will create 312 residential units for post-graduate students in the Port Meadow area.

But the four and five-storey blocks have been slammed by campaigners and academics for blocking views of Oxford’s famous skyline.

Oxford University professor of history of the church Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote in The Times newspaper: ‘Modern bureaucrats in their unlovely offices in Wellington Square have been putting up a Stalinist row of graduate accommodation blocks along the edge of Port Meadow, looming arrogantly above its tree-line, rudely hogging the views towards the dreaming spires.’

Ian Davis, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes Univeristy’s School of Architecture, wrote to the same newspaper backing Diarmaid’s views.

‘There have been some architectural triumphs at Oxford,’ he wrote. ‘But the new Port Meadow horrors join the ranks of some horrendous university failures. Shame on Oxford University for this new evidence of its disregard for the noble art of architecture and its responsibility to its city.’

Oxford University said the Castle Mill project would provide accommodation for hundreds of students, reducing pressure on housing in the city.

A spokesperson added: ‘We take our role as guardians of the beauty of Oxford seriously. Every significant development project in Oxford, whether involving the collegiate university or others, requires a careful balance of interests and needs—and only proceeds, as in this case, after full official scrutiny and approval.

‘The skyline of Oxford is a constantly evolving blend of the old and the new, the natural and the built. We recognise that the development has aroused some strong feelings and that these have every right to be heard. Concerns about the view of the buildings from Port Meadow have been and continue to be reflected in discussions with planning officers.’

The south phase of the Castle Mill project completed in 2005 and Oxford City Council granted planning permission for the north phase which is now on site one year ago.

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