The new Design Panel needs to focus on improving the City’s poor record on sustainable buildings Myself and partner Elise Benjamin, are probably the only councillors to have ever taken Oxford City Council (our own planning authority) to appeal over a planning decision. It happened many years back when we were trying to make our own home more sustainable.
We duly submitted a planning application, accompanied by over 40 letters of support, only to have the application turned down on grounds which took no consideration of the environmental outcomes we were trying to achieve.
Undeterred, we lodged an appeal with the planning inspectorate. These are typically more conservative than the local authority and so it proved. Our appeal was turned down.
An artist’s impression of the The Blavatnik School of Government building
Many years on, we are still smarting from the experience. What concerns me most is that the council has shown few signs of progress since. I have no reason to expect a better result were we to re-apply today.
Frankly, when it comes to sustainable buildings, the city council is all talk and no action. The vast majority of buildings within the city are being built to minimum legal environmental standards.
Future residents of Oxford will look back on these buildings and wonder how our elected councillors could have been so foolish when the social and environmental problems we are facing require a very different approach to development.
As a new Green city councillor in 2006 I tried to correct this by helping to develop a supplementary planning document known as the Natural Resource Impact Analysis (NRIA) which sought to raise the bar for new developments. Although the recommendations from the Greens were watered down, this document did at least set higher minimum standards.
An artist’s impression of the Westgate centre
Unfortunately, there seemed to be little political will to enforce it. A later review found that only around half of approved new developments met the NRIA requirements. Building regulations have improved since 2006 with the NRIA failing to keep pace. The NRIA is now all but redundant.
In this year’s Green city council alternate budget we found the necessary additional funds to invest in making the new Barton housing (being built by a city partnership on city council land) zero carbon. We also found the money to properly insulate the new Blackbird Leys Pool – which would have saved the council a considerable amount on its utility bills. Finally, we tried to top-up a proposed fund to make the council’s own buildings more energy efficient. None of our proposals were accepted.
Soil is removed for the construction of a new swimming pool at Blackbird Leys.
The council administration find it convenient to paint the Greens as unrealistic idealists. Yet the London Borough of Sutton built the UK’s first affordable, zero carbon, housing estate more than a decade ago and just down the road we have the zero-carbon Bicester eco-town taking shape..
Of course, issues of sustainability touch on many other aspects of building design; aesthetics, ecology, pollution and materials to name a few. Anyone who believes that the council has any credibility in these areas needs only to look at the shocking Port Meadow development, the agreed plans for the Blavatnik building, the St Clement’s car park blocks or the outline Westgate proposals. The latter two are the least excusable being on council owned land.
The controversial Castle Mill flats that overlook Port Meadow
With more developments in Oxford inevitable to meet our affordable housing crisis (which the council must itself shoulder some of the blame for) I hope that the newly appointed Design Panel will take sustainability much more seriously. With this in mind, I have extended an invitation to the Chair to meet up and discuss the matter.
Ultimately though, it is the councillors who will still be making the decisions. Will I ever be able to make my home more sustainable? I do hope so.