End of the road for Cowley?


Residents oppose University halls development

Plans for new student accommodation in Cowley have been met with fierce opposition from a residents’ leader.
Elizabeth Mills, leader of the Divinity Road Residents’ Association, has condemned plans for the development of student flats in a former gym.
The planning application brought by Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities, to be heard this week in a public meeting, proposes to convert The Gym at 381 Cowley Road into 12 flats.

Ms Mills has claimed in statements to the Oxford Mail that the University is turning Cowley into “the student union”. She believes that students bring problems to the area, including noise, parking and the provision for rubbish collection amongst her concerns. The residents’ leader suggested “more houses for families need to be repossessed from students.”

However, it is unclear how reflective the views of Ms Mills are of other residents. One respondent on the Oxford Mail websiteclaimed that the residents’ leader had made the statements unilaterally without consulting her group as a whole.

One student living on Cowley Road stated that he has a “good relationship on the whole” with his neighbours who more often than not recognise that students do actually contribute to the area and to the community.

Because of fears of over-development, the Council has reaffirmed to the Oxford Mail that all planning applications will be given due consideration and public consultation. However, they say they are confident that these plans will not be of detriment to local residents.

Rachael McLellan

Last credits loom for the Ultimate Picture Palace owners
The final credits may be about to roll at the Ultimate Picture Palace if the last independent cinema in Oxford is put on the market.
The end of an era looms after the joint owners, Jane Derricott and Philippa Farrow, hinted that they were considering selling the business due to other commitments.

The effort of keeping up the venture, even with the help of volunteers, has led to uncertainty over the future of the Ultimate Picture Palace, which is regarded as an important piece of cultural heritage in East Oxford.

The success of the cinema, with its huge list of faithful members, has exhausted its owners. The combination of cult classics and contemporary listings regularly culminate in sold-out screenings. Its use of 35 mm film and the license enabling the Ultimate Picture Palace to screen almost any movie means that its facilties are in great demand by the public. Unlike the Odeon, its menu is not dictated by the box office.

“We love it, it’s so much fun,” said Jane Derricott, “but we physically can’t keep up with it. We don’t think we’re delivering the potential of the building.”
Film fans fear the consequences if the cinema is sold to a chain, an event which would compromise the individual identity and uniqueness of the area, as well as posing a threat to the sustainability of other locally-owned businesses.
However, Derricott remains optimistic, describing the cinema’s prospects as “bright.” She said, “There are so many avenues to explore…the building becomes yours.”

Hiring out the cinema in the past has proved the openness of the space towards adaptation. The versatility of the big screen has allowed the venue to play host to charity events, jazz sessions, film clubs, bookreadings, private parties and even presentations of holiday videos.
Based in Jeune Street just off Cowley Road, the cinema has formed the stage for a variety of enterprises matching the diversity of the films it shows. The building has ranged from being used to store furniture to its current peak as an intimate venue where anything from the timeless black-and-white reel The Shop Around the Corner to the latest releases like The King’s Speech can be viewed.

On 24th February the building, laughingly described by Derricott as “shabby-chic,” will celebrate its 100th birthday, having first opened on that date in 1911.
In honour of this milestone, an anniversary celebration is being planned which promises to feature a film charting the building’s interesting history alongside the launch of a book dedicated to the subject and continued screenings of The Smallest Show on Earth – whose story of a “flea-pit” picture house closely correlates with the Ultimate Picture Palace.

“It’s important that the cinema survives in Cowley,” Derricott emphasised. Keeping the community aspect of the cinema and maintaining its independence is taken seriously by its owners. “We listen to people,” she said. “We try and consider their needs… Most people walk or cycle to the cinema from the local area, and we provide evening performances for those who work late.”

The positive reviews of the cinema on Oxford’s Daily Info webpage prove the popularity of the Palace and its central position in Cowley Road culture. One satisfied ‘cinephile’ compared the experience of going there to “watching a film in your living room,” adding “Well done to Jane and Philippa for making it the ULTIMATE place to see the best films!”

Derricott hopes that the cinema’s inheritors will fulfil the its potential: “You can do so much with it, it’s different from other cinemas.” She believes that the Ultimate Picture Palace offers “far more than popping into the Odeon,” and looks to the cinema’s next owners to retain its values, including supporting more Oxford or UK-based film-makers and remaining loyal to film-goers against the tide of online downloads.

Catherine Jenkins

Alice Thornton considers the future prospects of Oxford’s most unique street

This week’s articles suggest that Cowley Road may be under threat, and as a ‘student’ area perhaps it’s time for members of the University to consider whether we may have played a role in its destruction.
This unique area of Oxford doesn’t play a big part in every student’s time in the city. Not everyone has experienced the joys of Hi-Lo Bar or the Ultimate Picture Palace.

But for anyone living out of college the area is one of the few places in Oxford with rents students can afford.
Local residents are quick to blame students for disruptive, alcohol-fuelled behaviour, especially after the Fuzzy Ducks club night at the O2 Academy, but the effects on the area run deeper than this.

Big corporations see young people as easy targets for brand names. With the increasing prominence of chains on Cowley Road, such as Costa and Nando’s, it’s plausible that the area will only become more attractive to such brands as rents in the city centre continue to increase.
The suggestion is not that students shouldn’t live on Cowley Road, but that we make an effort to appreciate it. The epithet “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” couldn’t be more true.

While it’s undeniable that Tesco is handy we shouldn’t let day-to-day convenience get in the way of other valuable things that Cowley Road has to offer. Take a walk down George Street to experience the generic rows of chain restaurants if you want to be reminded of the variety the city centre lacks,
Cowley Road offers an alternative to this only fifteen minutes from Cornmarket.

So, here’s the challenge: Go somewhere you haven’t been before this weekend. Break out of Saturday’s post-Wahoo haze and take the time to visit Cowley Road. And if you’re a Cowley veteran use what might be your last opportunity to visit the Ultimate Picture Palace and Bead Games.

Owner of independent store forced out after 25 years

The owner of an independent shop on the Cowley Road which was described as a “treasure trove” by customers claims she has been forced out of business by increasing rents and the growing presence of chain and convenience stores on the road.

Erica Steinhauer founded the shop ‘Bead Games’ nearly 25 years ago when, she said, the Cowley Road was “full of creativity and lived up to its ‘eclectic’ reputation”. Her own shop was a typical example, selling, according to customers, “everything from costumes to sweets”.
As the lease on the property expires in March, however, Steinhauer has said she can no longer compete with the increasing rent prices, resulting from the increasing number of chain stores, cheap off-licenses and supermarkets on the road.

Steinhauer strongly advocates the importance of independent retail which, she said, “is what brought people in in the first place”, but admitted that it has become increasingly hard to maintain such standards as retailers “have to adapt” to growing corporate pressure.
Steinhauer was also involved in the setting up of the Cowley Road Carnival and each year opens it with her Teddy Bear’s Tea Party, which emphasises the “importance of the community”. Customers have described her as an “inspiration”. She is now resentful, however, of the Council’s lack of efforts to preserve that atmosphere, meaning: “During the day, Cowley Road is dead”.
The campaign run by Steinhauer, among others, to remedy this has often met with resistance from the local council who, she said, “chose not to support community events”.

Councillor Nuala Young, however, stressed that she is “really worried about losing the special character of the Cowley Road and becoming a clone city”.
Funding for a market and garden area in Dawson Street has finally been allotted, and the project will, Young claims, go ahead with the Council’s full support.
Steinhauer still insisted, however, that this will not be a complete solution and that “there is nowhere else” now that the Cowley Road has lost its original bohemian and friendly nature. Instead, it is becoming “the next George Street” in terms of cheap nightlife, which is increasingly giving the road a “rough reputation”.

A resident of the road commented: “It has certainly become a much less attractive and colourful place to spend time, or even live”.
The road is also threatened by what Steinhauer described as a “supermarket war” with a second Sainsbury’s store open in the area. She said that this has resulted in “the closing of small shops selling international, ethnic food”.
Whilst other supermarkets on the road such as Tesco insist that they exist for the needs of the consumer that the independent stores cannot fulfill, Mehrban Mohd, the owner of the Eastern and Continental Store, echoed Steinhauer’s feeling. He called the building of Sainsbury’s a “disaster and the last strike for smaller shops”.

Mohd laid the blame at the feet of the local Council, who, he said: “Should be supporting us and should not be allowing this”. Councillor Young insisted: “It is up to the residents to choose to support smaller businesses.” She said that she does not shop in Tesco on principle and that Green Councillors have been working over the last decade to promote a sense of community rather than undermining it.
However, Steinhauer remains convinced that the Cowley Road is very much “finished” in terms of an eclectic, bohemian community of which her shop ‘Bead Games’ was a part. “Whatever the Council say about supporting diversity”, she said, “it’s now a hologram”.

Rachel Nichols

Fine for lax letting agency

Oxford Letting and Property Management Ltd have been fined £2,000 by Oxford Magistrate’s Court last week, after pleading guilty to three offences of failing to keep a rented house in good repair.

The accusations came after Oxford Council environmental officers visited the house in Crown Street last February, responding to an official complaint from the tenants. The officers noted that the kitchen was in a state of disrepair, as well as a damaged window and poorly maintained fire escapes.
When contacted, a spokesman for Oxford Letting and Property Management stated that they had inherited the property and the license from Charles Lawson (Lettings) Ltd, who went bankrupt last year in the midst of police inquiries into missing rent and deposit payments. The spokesman stated that the terms of the license were unclear, and that “our failing in the procedures was that we didn’t look closely enough at the license conditions.” He further said that “we should have rung the council and enquired as to the full conditions, but we were only given a copy.”
The case coincides with a new Additional Licensing Scheme which came into force on 24th January 2011, which aims to license all ‘HMOs’, houses in multiple occupancy, in Oxford. The licensing scheme will cover the entire city.

The Oxford Council website describes the aim of the scheme as to “protect the health, safety and welfare of all occupiers”, and to ensure that “vulnerable tenants are protected”.
The website further states that in order to achieve a license, the property must be “suitable for occupation by the number of people allowed under the licence,” and have an acceptable “standard of management”.

Furthermore, the licensing aims to make sure that “A landlord of a HMO is a fit and proper person (or employs a manager who is)”.
The licensing scheme is a response to concerns raised by a 2005 Oxford Council house condition survey, which concluded that 70 percent of Oxford HMOs were unsafe and provided the lowest standards of living in Oxford. Furthermore, the council estimates that it receives an average of 2,000 complaints a year related to HMOs, coming from both tenants and their neighbours.

Oxford Letting and Property Management’s status will now be reviewed under the Housing Act this week. If the review finds that the company are no longer considered fit and proper, they will no longer be able to hold a license for, or manage, licensable HMOs.

Nevertheless, some students have responded less than enthusiastically to how helpful the new license will be for student lettings. Common issues among those asked tended to be the lack of response to problems that may arise with properties. One Pembroke second year said: “Our landlord leaves the letting agency to act on his behalf, which they never do.”

Emma McNulty, a first year reading history and politics, pointed out that “When we were looking for houses, we were repeatedly told that one of the most important factors in letting a house was how good the landlord was at dealing with problems- having a license confirming that they’re a fit and proper person isn’t going to ensure that”.

Councillor Joe McManners, board member for housing, described both the licensing scheme and the Oxford Letting and Property Management Ltd case as “really positive for students in lets”.

McManners responded to concerns over the effect of the new licensing scheme on students: “Over time students should see that the properties for rent will be of a better standard because every HMO will be inspected by the Council before a licence is issued. They should also notice that HMOs are being managed more effectively and responsively by the agent or landlord.”

For students who may have difficulties with their landlord or letting agency that aren’t being resolved, McManners recommended contacting the council for more advice. “We provide a reactive service to deal with complaints about poor conditions in privately rented accommodation and a specialised Tenancy Relations Officer who can advise tenants and landlords about the legislation and how it applies to tenancies, evictions, rents etc.”

Emma Kinnaird