MOST people have opinions about architecture but getting them involved in the planning process is more complex.
The issue of consultation has been a hot one recently after the release of an independent review into the Castle Mill student flats controversy.
Both Oxford City Council and Oxford University have found themselves at the centre of a furore over the buildings in Roger Dudman Way, which block views of the city’s ‘dreaming spires’.
Since then the issue has been taken to the High Court by campaigners who want to see the buildings lowered.
Vincent Goodstadt a former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, looked at how the council dealt with the application.
While he cleared it of any wrong-doing he came up with six recommendations for how the authority could work better.
A large number of those relate to the issue of consultation – and how the city council can do a better job of involving the public in the planning process.
This is something campaigners against Oxford University’s controversial student accommodation blocks near Port Meadow have been saying for a while.
But Mr Goodstadt’s comments mean the city council is drawing up an action plan to make changes.
He found notices advertising the scheme were not placed at “high profile” places and that the council didn’t think to ask why many of groups – such as Oxford Civic Society – didn’t respond.
He also said the consultation did not reach enough people, and this has proven to be one of the main issues his report identified with a total of 11 recommendations on the matter.
Peter Thompson, the chairman of Oxford Civic Society, criticised the city council when it decided to stop sending out letters to neighbours of proposed developments and instead relies on its online system.
He said he was hopeful this could bring about a change in the way planning applications are dealt with.
Mr Thompson said: “We have a long-standing criticism of the consultation process and the facilities that are available to see what an application comprises.
“Mr Goodstadt has done a very thorough investigation and he has identified a number of shortcomings in the system.
“I would hope that the city council will become more stringent now.”
Mr Goodstadt’s recommendations include more effective notices advertising a planning application and a better consideration of how the visual impact of a development can be shown.
A design panel of national planning and heritage experts is already being set up to avoid such controversies again.
It will examine large schemes before planning applications are submitted.
In his report Mr Goodstadt said: “The overall Castle Mill development is equivalent in scale to a major college of the university.
“Its development in 2012 should have been one of the least contentious major developments in Oxford.
“The site is a brownfield disused rail sidings. The site has been identified for at least 15 years as suitable for student accommodation. The need for such accommodation is not questioned, nor is the existing planning consent for a three or four-storey development.
“Yet despite having followed due processes it has resulted in major protests, including a petition to the council to review its decision.”
But according to one of Oxford’s planning tsars, the level of public involvement in planning is as buoyant as it ever has been.
City councillor Colin Cook, the executive board member for city development, said: “I think that we have got the same level of responses that we have always had.
“We stopped sending out letters for cost reasons and we made a saving of around £65,000.
“We have seen no drop in the number of responses as a result of changing from letters to our online system.
“What the Roger Dudman Way review found was that people didn’t realise the controversial nature of the buildings until they were going up.”
And this is where the problem of visually representing a proposed building before it exists comes in.
City councillor James Fry has proposed introducing a Swiss system of representing the height of buildings with poles, and this is being trialled.
But Mr Cook says the more widespread use of computer imagery would be the best way of doing it.
Hopefully it won’t take another Castle Mill for us to find out what the answer is.
Recommendation 1 - Planning Process
It is recommended that the planning processes should be strengthened by:
- Improving the clarity of the informal and formal liaison arrangements and the documentation of the pre-application process s Providing a clearer auditing regime of the submitted documents against the requirements in the published guidance in the registration process on major applications
- A review of the environmental impact assessment-related procedures in terms of: The advice provided in pre-application discussions, improving the quality of the forms and documentation used and the training and briefing of officers in respect of EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) screening process.
These are the recommended pre-application guidelines:
- Allow more time between project inception and the proposed commencement date s Engage other appropriate parties (including members) in pre-application discussions and not just officers
- Provide opportunities for presentations and briefings to members
- Encourage a two-stage consultation on major applications
- Set down clearer guidelines on the desired documentation Post-application guidance on the planning processes enables:
- A more structured approach to the weekly lists to enable the ready identification of major developments
- A more effective provision of site notices s Additional means for communicating the scale and massing of major developments
- Consultation on revised drawings
- The provision of feedback to respondents on planning decisions
- The planning processes to be more integrated with other regulatory processes
3 Visual impact and design quality
It is recommended that existing initiatives to improve the design capacity of the council should be complemented by action to enhance the use of in-house expertise and to provide members with greater support in their considerations of design issues and visual impacts by:
- Developing greater technical capacity (IT and skills) to take advantage of the rapidly evolving potential for interpreting design and integration with established geographic information system
- Improving the advice on the design evidence used to support application, in particular in the preparation of design and access statements
- Enhancing member training on design and planning s Investigating and adopting the best new field-based approaches to assessing the visual impact of new development
4 Committee reporting
It is recommended that the presentation of the planning issues of major applications to committee should be strengthened by:
- A systematic documentation of the policy evaluation including clarification of the extent and nature of any departure from policy
- A more evidenced-based approach to the presentation of the choices before committee, and the impact of mitigation through conditions in reports
- The use of alternative means of addressing design considerations (eg, in terms of visualisations and, where necessary, site visits)
5 Planning conditions
It is recommended that enforcement procedures and coordination should be strengthened through:
- An auditable process for determining the appropriate enforcement action
- A review of the use of standard planning conditions, and updating of them where necessary
- Inter-agency co-ordination to address the issues set out in the main report
- The use of a range of media should be considered to provide accurate and accessible information that addresses these concerns
6 Wider planning issues
It is recommended that Oxford City Council also gives consideration to:
- Enhancing the planning service in terms of planning process, policy and strategy as specified in Section I of the main report
- Progressing and formalising a more strategic approach to the future development needs and engagement with the universities and colleges
2000: Outline planning permission was granted for student accommodation at Roger Dudman Way on former railway land known as North End Yard.
2002: Oxford University gets planning permission for 354 student rooms at the site s 2004: 127 units are completed.
Nov 2011: The university submits an application for 312 graduate study rooms and flats in eight blocks on four and five levels.
Jan 2012: City council heritage officer Nick Worlledge submits report on “harmful impact of the scheme”.
Feb 9, 2012: University submits revised bid, reducing height of highest 18.36m blocks by 1.2m.
Feb 15, 2012: Revised plans for 17.2m blocks approved by Oxford City Council’s West Area Committee on officers’ recommendation. The Worlledge report was never seen by the committee.
Sep 2012: Oxford University ancient history professor Sir Fergus Millar describes the impact on views from Port Meadow as “scandalous”.
Oct 2012: 1,000 people back an online petition.
Jan 2013: Protesters use Prince of Wales’ visit to Oxford to raise the profile of the campaign. Campaigners call for the blocks to be reduced by two storeys.
Mar 2013: Campaigners prepare for legal challenge against the granting of planning permission.
Sep 2013: Planning expert Vincent Goodstadt is appointed to carry out an independent review.
Oct 2013: High Court judge Mr Justice Lewis rules against the campaigners at a judicial review hearing on the basis that the city council has already agreed to carry out an environmental impact assessment.
Jan 2014: Mr Goodstadt releases his final report which is passed to the West Area Planning Committee.