Controversy continues over Castle Mill accommodation

A lecturer has proposed to Oxford University figures that the top floor of each building should be removed at Castle Mill accommodation.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Rev. Professor of the History of the Church at St Cross College and TV historian has suggested that a floor is removed from each of the Castle Mill buildings, in light of the findings from an Environmental Impact Assessment. This would cost the University £12 million, remove 38 bedrooms and require all residents to vacate the buildings for a year.

The motion was proposed to the Congregation, a body made up of 5,000 senior University figures.

MacCulloch argued that, although such action would be “deeply regrettable”, it “would not have happened if the University administration had not gone ahead without fulfilling all planning conditions” during the initial stages of the Castle Mill project.

He also said that he hoped the motion would “restore the good name of the University in the city of Oxford and beyond, a good name which has been so sullied by these two years of disastrous public relations”.

Castle Mill has been the subject of controversy since planning permission was granted in February 2012. Several local campaigns are ongoing to challenge the development, including the Facebook group “Protect Port Meadow from Oxford University.” They estimate that of the 700 and 800 submissions to comment on the Consultation on the University’s Environmental Impact, “easily over 95% of them” offer support of MacCulloch’s favoured plan.

English Heritage have also commented negatively on the Castle Mill development, saying that: “Every design decision taken by the architects – or prescribed, as it seems, by the client –appears to have contributed to the failure of the scheme to address the environment in which it has been set. They appear to have set out to design buildings which would be seen to be tall, repetitive, blocklike in form and prominent by colour.”

However, MacCulloch’s proposal has been criticised for its potential impact on residents of Castle Mill.

Sam Shearn, a Castle Mill resident, said: “Castle Mill is not just an evil eyesore cunningly schemed by the corporate university and filled with entitled students. Castle Mill is also a home to low-income families from all over the world, provided by a University Accommodation Office which prioritizes the needs of students with children. The campaign would have these families turfed out like oiks!”

Margaret Ounsley, the University’s Head of Government and Community Relations, has also defended the rights of residents. In a blog post, she stated that “we are talking about potentially taking away people’s homes here”, and accused critics of the development of “neatly sidestepping many other complex factors” in the discussion of Castle Mill.

MacCulloch’s motion comes following the publication of a retrospective Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), commissioned voluntarily by the University after a high court challenge in 2012. The report found the buildings had a high “adverse impact” on Port Meadow, the Oxford skyline, the Thames, and St Barnabas Church. It continued by suggesting means to reduce this impact.

While MacCulloch has proposed following the most radical of these suggestions, the University prefers a plan which proposes changing the colour of the buildings and adding timber cladding and mature trees to the western side. As well as reducing the impact on residents, the cost of this would be around £6 million.

The University has also said in a Q&A that following MacCulloch’s proposal “would also affect the University and Oxford Brookes’ ability to comply with the City Council’s limit of 3,000 students living in private accommodation in the city. Ultimately, the 38 bedrooms would have to be replaced with a new building, at a cost of £7.5m and taking up more much-needed land in Oxford.”

The University will present their proposal to the City Council in February or March, who will then decide whether to accept or reject it.

The motion is due to be discussed in the University’s congregation on the 10 February.


PHOTO// Jpbowen