Westgate Development comments

Our letter to developers Land Securities about their plans for redeveloping the Westgate Centre

4 July 2013

Developers Land Securities have been consulting on their plans for redeveloping the Westgate Centre prior to submitting formal planning applications later this year. We have written to them with our comments expressing the hope that plans for the new Westgate can be better integrated with the other strategic developments, especially Oxpens and the rail station. Our full letter follows:

Following the recent exhibition of the current proposals for the redevelopment of Westgate, and some discussion amongst members of our Planning and Transport Groups, I thought it appropriate to provide you with some feedback.

There are two key principles relating to the development which we consider are critical: attracting as many people to it as possible, and the contribution it makes to the local built environment in terms of architecture and public realm enhancement. I am sure you are in agreement with at least the first of these!

We do not feel that it is appropriate or even possible to make Oxford competitive with places like Milton Keynes and Reading by replication of the facilities provided there. Rather, Oxford can and should provide a unique environment in which to linger, browse, socialise, and enjoy the unrivalled historic and cultural attributes, as well as engaging in shopping activities. The new Westgate should be striving to enhance this environment both in quantity and quality, building on the current attractions of the city in order to create a uniquely pleasurable experience for visitors of all kinds. This would be consistent with your previous advice to us that Oxford needs to attract more of the wealth of its hinterland, and thus optimise its commercial investment value.

Oxford is also unique, of course, in the topographical constraints of its river systems and floodplains, and the layout of its historic built environment. Because of this, transportation issues are always one of the major ‘opportunities’ to be resolved. Oxford already enjoys almost unparalleled cycle usage, a unique Park & Ride system, high levels of bus ridership, and train passenger numbers that are rising dramatically.

Given the inevitable levels of traffic congestion most new shoppers attracted to Westgate from outside Oxford will be taking advantage of the public transport system. Of course, City & County Councils will require financial contributions, and we would urge the Westgate Alliance to demand radical improvement of public transport connectivity as an important element in the commercial success of the development. In particular we believe that a transportation hub including rail and bus interconnection should be as close to the development as possible. This would benefit not only retail customers, but the 3,000 employees likely to be accessing Westgate daily.

Use of trains is, as I am sure you are aware, rising rapidly, especially in Oxford. Network Rail and the train operating companies are investing massively, Oxford Station is due to be re-built very shortly and there is even discussion of reinstatement of long-disused lines to re-connect Witney and towns beyond. The main Banbury – Birmingham and Cotswold Lines already provide quick and convenient access direct to the city centre from parts of that ‘wealthy hinterland’, more of whose residents you would presumably like to attract, and the soon-to-be connected link to the Chiltern Line will extend this facility. The Westgate presentation provided little evidence of any consideration of rail transport issues, or of connectivity across transport modes.

We are concerned that proposals such as for the withdrawal of buses from Queen Street, and new routeings have been presented (both by yourselves and the County Council), but with little or no information on what new routes might be established, how existing services might be re-routed, how better connectivity with, say, the north of the city (one of its most affluent areas) can be achieved, or numbers and frequency of services. All these factors are clearly important in determining layouts, space provision or the adequacy or acceptability of the proposals.

The City and County Councils, together with Network Rail have now commissioned a masterplan for the station area. The brief to the appointed consultant stipulates that consideration should be given to the possibilities of re-location of the station southwards, i.e. nearer to the John Lewis store which anchors your development. You will recall that we have been calling for re-consideration of this option (which was originally mooted in 2004) for some time. Coincidently, Oxford City Council is currently consulting on its own recently-prepared Oxpens Masterplan. The area this relates to is, of course, immediately adjacent to your development site.

We are concerned that the Westgate proposals as presented show little evidence of any consideration of either of these masterplanning activities, yet they deal with extensive regeneration of an important near-central area, immediately adjacent to the Westgate site, and involving new housing, commercial uses and a hotel, as well as the key transport facilities. It is hard to see how the successful redevelopment and extension of Westgate can ignore plans which will effectively establish the future context into which it is to be placed. As an example, the Oxpens Masterplan shows transformation of Thames Street and Oxpens Road into a tree-lined boulevard, with limited traffic speeds and free pedestrian movements across it from the existing and new developments to the south. The objective is a re-connection of communities, which we would strongly support. Neither your proposals, not those of the County Council show such enhancement of Thames Street, merely engineering solutions for motor traffic associated with the Westgate development.

Cycling is a hugely important mode of transport in Oxford, and both the City and County Councils have policies to significantly increase the attractiveness of cycling. These are gradually being implemented, and we consider that development of the design proposals for the new Westgate should involve proper appraisal of the likely cycle traffic generation, flows and routes, and the facilities which will be required to accommodate and encourage this traffic. These issues will obviously influence road and access layouts, as well as parking and storage. The proposals presented give no indication that adequate consideration has been given to cycling as a significant mode of transport, as, of course, it already is in Oxford.

In terms of the architecture of the proposed new development, we are very concerned that it should ‘connect’ with its surroundings. As currently shown, not only are your proposals for Thames Street apparently inconsistent with the designs and philosophy being developed by the City Council, the ‘dead’ facades exacerbate the current disconnection of the city centre from its immediate surroundings. The whole of the elevation to Old Greyfriars Street is shown as totally inactive at ground level (‘activity’ at higher levels is a somewhat disingenuous concept!).

Likewise, for nearly all of Thames Street, and much of Castle Street and Norfolk Street, the proposed designs for the new buildings will clearly do nothing to stimulate human activity at street level, nor to facilitate connectivity with the surroundings. This is perhaps especially important in respect of the Castle, which could, with better connectivity, complement Westgate as its historic leisure and cultural quarter. The current Westgate proposals appear inward-looking in a manner inappropriate to a 21st-century solution for city-centre development, and redolent of the sterile exterior of the development it will replace! The surrounding streets seem designed to ‘contain’ rather than connect both vehicle traffic and pedestrians, as well as visually, and look likely to ensure the isolation of the new development from its surroundings, rather than its integration at the heart of the city.

I hope that you will accept these comments as constructive suggestions for the improvement of the current proposals, in the interests of both yourselves, as developers, and the shoppers, visitors and residents of the city, now and long into the future.

Peter Thompson

Chairman, Oxford Civic Society