March 2018: Dreaming spires not Oxford Towers

March 2018: Dreaming spires not Oxford Towers

When the snow came, many headed for the hills, to South Park or Boars Hill to toboggan and enjoy the Oxford views, perhaps taking them for granted, surviving across the years despite development pressures from University, Colleges and the City.  OPT’s hand is here, creating South Park as a gift to Oxford at the Festival of Britain and at Boars Hill we resisted development and now open the land for all to enjoy the walks and views.   A more mundane reason for their survival can be found in the Oxford Local Plan where, enshrined within the pages, the View Cones and height restrictions on new buildings to 18.2 metres above Carfax can be found.    These were a reaction to two 1960s buildings, one now demolished, the other the Engineering Building, Banbury Road.  Oxford was proud to be the first UK city to have such a policy, its success there for all to see today, not least from the ‘pavement in the sky’ at the new Westgate. 

Now for the first time in sixty years it is at risk.  More housing is needed, and tight administrative boundaries and political differences, green belt, and floodplain restrict opportunities to build around the edges.  If you don’t build outwards, then an obvious response is to build upwards, so it can be no surprise that the City Council has commissioned a High Buildings Study looking at this and at encouraging higher densities.   The Study has no foregone conclusion, of course, but realistically the politics which commissioned the work will surely conclude that this should happen.  The consultants are sound, but the timetable is too tight, with a new Local Plan to come out for consultation in the Summer.  All this is dangerous territory, as the developers wait, ready to pounce, with permission already granted for a fifteen- storey tower at Templars Square, Cowley and early drawings for Oxpens showing a trophy tower in the mix.  The devil will be in the detail, but there can be no room for idealism, or for loopholes, and it will need considerable weight to be attached to the importance of protecting the views if and when plans to build tall come forward.

Let us not be the generation that kills the goose that lays this golden egg, for surely Oxford’s dreaming spires matter to the economy as well as to us heritage buffs.

We already sense a change in attitude, and not just where housing is concerned.  To date large and significant buildings have been carefully designed to minimise their impact in the view, whether the minarets of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies or the Blavatnik School of Government, alongside the Radcliffe Observatory.  Recently three Colleges have submitted planning applications which include new towers. At St Hilda’s permission has been granted for a tower at their new entrance in Cowley Place, and Jesus College has included a tower opposite the Covered Market in their development on the corner of Cornmarket and Market Street.  The tallest of them all is at New College where plans include a separate 25m tower, 7 metres taller than the usual Oxford height limit.  An unusual design for Oxford, it is a separate tower building, more akin to a campanile (without the bells).  No doubt it will be beautifully executed if allowed, but if this, St Hilda’s and Jesus are all allowed the precedent will surely have been set so that other colleges will surely follow.  Is a fast-changing skyscape the right  approach for Oxford’s dreaming?

This article was taken from Debbie Dance’s column in the Oxford Times in March 2018.

Who are OPT?

We are the Oxford Preservation Trust and since 1927 we’ve restored and conserved when others may overlook. We take under our wing those quirky hidden gems which form the important layers of history which make up our great city. 

What also sets us apart is our passion and expertise in maintaining Oxford’s green setting ‘where town meets country’. We own and look after 1000 acres of land in and around the city, protecting and giving the public access to the world famous dreaming spires views so that they may continue to inspire artists, writers, visitors and Oxfordians alike.

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