Oxford: Milling About Castle Mill

Posted by Kristina Murkett in

There seems to be a housing crisis escalating in Oxford. Despite the city's pressing need for new homes, figures from Oxford City Council reveal that not a single affordable home was built in 2013/2014; whilst in November 2014 a survey by Centre for Cities crowned Oxford the 'least affordable UK city' to live in. First year students at Oxford pay an eye-watering £137 a week in rent in halls (£30 more a week than London universities such as UCL and Imperial); whilst average house prices are just shy of £270,000, and rents are rising by 3% a year. More than 45,000 people commute to Oxford daily, many travelling because they simply cannot afford to live near their workplace.

Given all of these facts, it seems somewhat absurd that Oxford City Council are actually considering getting rid of a student accommodation development, rather than prioritizing building more. Castle Mill is a graduate housing complex located at the edge of the picturesque Port Meadows that has caused much controversy since it was built in 2012 - many complain that the four to five storey blocks spoil the Oxford skyline, and in February 2013 the Council was forced to consider reducing the height of the buildings by two storeys (a decision which Oxford University estimated would cost between £10 and 20 million). The plans have been revised, and rejected, several times since, fuelling various protests, petitions, and political campaigns.

Just over two years ago, five Lord Mayors of Oxford wrote a joint letter in which they 'acknowledged the need for more graduate student accommodation,' but insisted that the development would not only 'do lasting damage to the setting of Port Meadow and the reputation of Oxford as a civilized place that values and safeguards its heritage.' The blocks, which currently contain 493 units, are overlooking an area listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Yet Margaret Ounsley, the Oxford University head of government and community relations, disagreed with their views: 'The Castle Mill story has become - literally - all about one view, neatly sidestepping many complex factors, including the social and economic benefits brought to the city, and the fact that we are talking about potentially taking away people's homes here.' Many blame it as a problem of hindsight - there was undoubtedly inadequate consultation on the original proposals, and one has to wonder why an Environmental Impact Assessment was not immediately carried out.

The debate was raised once again this month, when the Oxford University Congregation (a sort of parliament for dons), voted against removing the top floor of the development by 536 to 210. However, since 4500 senior university people are members of the Congregation, and the voting venue (the Sheldonian Theatre) actually only holds about 1,000 people, this is not a mandate, and so the argument is not over yet.

One of the main issues also seems to be the development's proximity to the railway station and the tracks, which means that it is often the first impression one has of Oxford. Government Planning Minister Nick Boles said that Castle Mill reminded him of a 'Maze Prison', and thought that 'the idea that this is the first view, from one of the most precious pieces of land in Oxfordshire, is something of which the university and the council should be profoundly ashamed.' Yet should the debate not be about what is financially pressing rather than what is aesthetically pleasing?

There is also the question of who really represents the 'university' in this debate. Is it the estates department, the financial administration, the vice-chancellor? How much influence do the academics, the graduates, and the students have on this important decision? More importantly, what do the residents of Castle Mill have to say about it?

At least some of the dons managed to maintain a sense of humour throughout the proceedings. Comments made included, 'these buildings could have graced an East German city before unification', and 'A Scotsman finds it difficult to spend £30 million on anything, far less on undoing something we've only just done.'

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons.