Despite decisive opposition expressed last week, members of the Oxford University Congregation have called for a postal vote on a motion to remove the top floor of the Castle Mill accommodation complex.
Preceding the meeting last Tuesday, protesters gathered outside the Sheldonian Theatre to chant the message “Save Castle Mill” and distribute leaflets to the Congregation.
After two and a half hours of discussion, the motion was discarded by a vote of 210 (28%) in favor and 536 (72%) against removing the top floor of Castle Mill.
However, because the Congregation, the sovereign body governing Oxford University, is comprised of about 4,500 senior figures, most of whom were not present during the meeting, History Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch and his supporters were able to call the motion to a postal ballot.
The controversy surrounding this vote proceeds from the presence of Castle Mill, the £21.5 million development consisting of 439 units of graduate accommodation on Roger Dudman Way.
Oxford City Council, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and the Save Port Meadow Campaign have repeatedly criticised the planning process for the development on the grounds that the accommodation blocks are prominently visible from Port Meadow, a designated Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The Oxfordshire Green Party has also called the development a “horrendous blot on our historic landscape”.
Many students, backed by the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), believe that the proposal seriously undermines the value of Oxford students and university staff.
OUSU President Louis Trup admitted that while “the process that led to construction of the homes was bad,” and that “OUSU will of course want to be a part of ensuring that future consultations are better,” he also stated that “the buildings are no longer just buildings; they are homes.”
Trup said: “We are today dealing with a proposal to prioritize a subjective opinion on aesthetics over painful realities for graduate students, disabled students, students with families, the wider Oxford community, and the values which this body is entrusted to uphold – excellence in education and research.”
Commenting on the move towards a postal vote, David Cesar Heymann, Co-Chair of Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) said: “OULC is disappointed thatfollowing a clear and decisive decision from the Congregation, a small group of people with misguided priorities have decided to prolong the uncertainty for so many students.”
The postal vote is likely to take place within a month and will involve a simple majority. Professor McCulloch who called the vote said: “It may seem like tilting at windmills to call a postal vote after the large numbers against in the debate, but the Castle Mill flats are considerably less picturesque than a windmill. We want all colleagues in the University to have a proper chance to cast a vote.”
Representatives from the Save Port Meadow Campaign agreed. They said: “Given the huge strength of feeling expressed by so many at Congregation the request for a postal vote seems sensible.”
The SPM Campaign said that they welcomed that, “at last the University is prepared to admit publicly that terrible harm has been caused by the building of these flats. Its stance has switched from stubborn silence to expressions of regret and even shame. But however sincere these sentiments are, words are not enough. The proof of its sincerity will be in the detail of what it proposes to put things right.”
Trup, in his speech to the Congregation, said: “Students apply to Oxford, not because they like our skyline, but because they want to live, learn and research amongst the finest thinkers in the world.”
University vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton has also issued a personal appeal to Congregation members saying: “No university, not even one as beautiful as Oxford, should put buildings before its students.”