Manor Place student housing – OCS objections

Land South Of Manor Place Oxford Oxfordshire OX1 3UN

3 August 2015

Planning application reference: 15/01747/FUL

Erection of 4 buildings on one and four levels to provide 349 student study rooms together with ancillary facilities including dining room, reception, lounge areas, car and cycle parking, bin storage and landscaped gardens.

Introduction

Oxford Civic Society has grave misgivings about these proposals for such a jewel of a site.  It is alarming that Oxford University has not been proactive in influencing Merton College’s decisions relating to the site, despite the facts that (a) the University claims, as in the case of the St Cross College application, to have an urgent need for postgraduate accommodation and (b) this project will make no contribution to meeting the commitment on providing student housing given to the City Council by the University and Oxford Brookes.

We acknowledge that the applicant engaged in a pre-application consultation with Oxford Civic Society in January and we were grateful for that.  We made extensive suggestions for improvements to the scheme then exhibited; unfortunately, little recognition of our concerns is evident in the current proposals. We were expecting further consultations before an application was submitted but this has not happened and although we have accepted an invitation to meet the developer this will not be until after the City Council’s deadline for comment.

Although some aspects of the scheme may have improved, the number of students to be accommodated has increased and this exacerbates many of the defects in the earlier proposals. Our more detailed criticisms of the proposals are as follows:

Design

The buildings are too high and the density of the development is too great, considering the location of the site and the nature of the surrounding land use.

The location of the site would suggest that a more collegiate feel to the design would be much more appropriate; as it is, the design fails to disguise that it is has been conceived to exploit to the limit the market for student accommodation, with nothing like the necessary regard or respect for the characteristics of the location, including the Conservation Area status, the Grade 1 listed Magdalen Deer Park, the Grade 2 listed St Catherine’s College, and the historic Holywell Cemetery.

The simulated view provided of the proposed development across the Deer Park itself demonstrates how the character of the park would be severely compromised; the ridge line of the buildings is shown as rising nearly 9m above the boundary wall to the park, and the expanses of lead-sheathed pitched roofs form an unattractive backdrop to the deciduous trees of the park.

The effects of the development on Holywell Cemetery would be much more destructive of the character and amenity of that historic, much-loved and valuable space, which represents one of Oxford’s hidden gems; an oasis of calm and tranquillity, filled with interest and history in the form of the wildlife and memorials which occupy this unexpected space.

The north flank of Block C of the proposed development would lie parallel to the southern boundary wall of the cemetery, only some 3.5m (11ft) away, and rising nearly 6m (20ft) above the wall; the building ridge would be almost 9.5m (over 31ft) higher than the wall. At its east end, the proposed building would be closer still to the Holywell Cemetery wall, with the projecting bay at first and second floors barely 2m away.

The effects of this positioning for this building would be that this side of the cemetery would be in almost perpetual shadow, and its character would be totally destroyed by the looming mass of the building of this height, in such close proximity.

The space between the cemetery wall and the building would be a sunless canyon; furthermore visitors to the cemetery and to the graves along the southern boundary would have a direct view into the bedroom windows of the student accommodation, seriously compromising the privacy of occupants and rendering it necessary to keep curtains or blinds perpetually closed.

The precedent set by the existing Brasenose College development immediately to the west of the development site (shown below) confirms the unacceptability of this layout, and should not be followed.

Manor Place 1
Manor Place 1
Manor Place 2
Manor Place 2

The plans submitted with this application suggest that the southern boundary of the cemetery is shielded by dense existing tree planting; this is misleading, since the trees in question are actually set back from the boundary and there are graves and open space occupying the space between the trees and the boundary wall, as the aerial view below confirms. Consequently, visitors to the cemetery will have a close-proximity view directly into the windows of student rooms, as they do with the existing development shown above.

It is a serious omission that the only views from the cemetery given any consideration are those directly eastwards. It is totally unsatisfactory that the cemetery will effectively be completely hemmed in and overshadowed by 4-storey buildings, apart from the narrow and channelled vista between blocks A and B.

Manor Place 3
Manor Place 3

The relationship of building A to properties in Manor Place, and the views of the proposed buildings from St Catherine’s College have not been adequately assessed, and significantly compromise the character and setting of these, particularly the latter, with its listed status.

In terms of appearance, the uniform, over-bearing design of the three main buildings and unsympathetic detailing is more suggestive of prison architecture than of a student community in central Oxford.

This theme is carried over to the interior layouts and design, in which the ‘cells’, described as providing high quality accommodation, potentially for post-graduate university students, are of inadequate size or variety, with wholly inadequate catering or recreational provision. These latter facilities are likely to be of particular importance given the location of the site and the remoteness of alternative facilities. The concept of the whole development is all too reminiscent of a student ‘silo’ or intensive livestock farming accommodation.

Management

In the text of the application it is repeatedly suggested that the residents of this accommodation will be university students; the developer has confirmed, however, that neither Oxford University nor any of the its constituent colleges (including the joint applicant, Merton College) have expressed any interest in their students occupying the development, nor having any involvement in its management. The development will thus do nothing to facilitate the compliance of either Oxford University or Oxford Brookes University with City Council planning policy CS25 relating to student numbers accommodated directly by the university.

The likely lack of allegiance of the occupants of the development to any of the most prestigious of the city’s educational institutions means that management of the accommodation is critical to the acceptability of the proposals. The indication that the entire development would be devoid of professional management except during normal business hours, and that the entire student community would be self-managed overnight at weekends is unacceptable, particularly in the light of the apparent experiences of students elsewhere of accommodation managed by the same organisation as that proposed.

Transport

The cycle storage provision (1 cycle space per 2 students) is based on Council minimum standards, and not on any assessment of the likely actual travel mode choices of the intended residents. Clearly, the vast majority, perhaps of the residents will use bicycles, especially since this will be a car-free development, there are no bus services in adjacent streets, the nearest bus stop is about 800m away. In these circumstances it is clear that cycling is likely to be a very attractive proposition for most residents, and the proposals for bicycle storage are totally inadequate, even for residents and without consideration of visitors’ requirements.

No assessment of actual bicycle traffic generation or the effects of this on Manor Place, Manor Road, Longwall Street, Jowett Walk, St Cross Road and South Parks Road has been made, or of the enhancements necessary to improve safety for cyclists travelling to and from this development on all these roads, and negotiating their crossings and junctions.

The application includes the bald assertion that there is “sufficient provision and capacity” in the road network, without any attempt at quantification. Likewise, Table 8.18 of the Environmental Statement asserts that the impact of increased cyclist and pedestrian flows will have a negligible effect on traffic on the surrounding road network, but no data are provided to justify this assertion.

We agree with the comments of Oxfordshire County Council on the traffic and transport problems which have not been addressed by the developers.

In summary, our concerns are

  • Failure to comply with City Planning Policies, including HE7, CP8, CP21, HP5, HP14, and HP15
  • Serious harm to the Conservation Area
  • Over-development
  • Gross inadequacy of the facilities for students, risking disruptive behaviour and public nuisance
  • Inadequate arrangements for 24/7 management
  • Disturbance to the neighbourhood, including overbearing and overlooking
  • No contribution to the student accommodation commitments required of the two universities in CS25
  • Serious transport and traffic implications to which Oxfordshire County Council has drawn attention.

Many of these matters go beyond the narrow terms of reference of the Design Review Panel. The Design Review Panel has twice considered the proposal but the public is denied access to the Panel’s comments. We hope that the Planning Committee will appreciate the limitations of the DRP’s remit, which prevent it from addressing the range of concerns expressed by Oxford Civic Society.