THE people of Oxford are being asked for their views on what makes the city so special in an attempt to preserve its buildings and views.
For the first time, Oxford City Council is drawing up a heritage plan, listing its historic buildings so they can be saved and preserved. The project also focuses on saving iconic views of the city. Campaigners hope it will mean building work such as Oxford University’s student accommodation block – which sparked outrage for its impact on views from Port Meadow – can be stopped in future.
Campaigner Sushila Dhall said: “Port Meadow is important, not only to the people of Oxford, but it is unique and important to the nation.
“The view from the meadow wasn’t taken seriously by anybody.
“Putting together a heritage plan would be a good idea if the councillors kept to it when deciding on planning applications.”
City councillor Colin Cook, board member for city development, said: “We looked at the views at the time of the planning application for the student blocks and we took the view that it was not sufficiently damaging that we would go for refusal.”
The list of heritage assets will help give weight to current planning policies and will end up as part of the city’s local development framework. It will then become a material consideration in all planning matters and will need to be considered as part of every application. Oxford has more than 1,600 listed buildings, 17 conservation areas and 11 scheduled monuments, of which Port Meadow, in Wolvercote, is one.
The heritage plan includes a register of assets which don’t meet criteria for national designation, but still need to be protected in the eyes of local people.
A consultation has started into the historic character of central Oxford.
Council officers have drawn up reports for 44 areas across the city.
Even the historic value of the Westgate shopping centre has been looked into – although city council officers came to the conclusion the area had “poor aesthetic qualities”.
Peter Thompson, chairman of the Oxford Civic Society, said: “I don’t think we can be complacent about the conservation of our heritage.
“Without this there is a bit of an assumption that Oxford has a historic heritage at its core, but it may be difficult to put the case against specific developments.”
Property developer Martin Young has been trying to develop 29 Old High Street, in the Old Headington conservation area, but has found himself battling against conservation rules.
He said: “Heritage assets need to be protected, but I wouldn’t want to give the council any more power.” The city council is also carrying out conservation area appraisals and creating a character assessment ‘toolkit’ to allow planners to understand the impact of developments.
English Heritage, which is putting £35,000 into the scheme, said it was the first of its kind in the country.
Eventually the findings will be brought together in a new website.
M Cook added: “This is something where we have gone beyond what we are statutorily required to do. We are at the forefront of this.
“We have in Oxford the highest concentration of listed buildings outside of London. This will help decision-makers in the future with planning applications which come before them.
“This will help codify and get down on paper the stuff that may only exist in people’s heads.”
Jacquie Martinez, of the Oxford Preservation Trust, said: “This allows us to bring together policies and tools which already exist and ones which don’t. Oxford is a historic city, but it is also one that needs to continue to develop. It cannot be frozen in time.”