A NATIONAL heritage body has called on an Oxford college and developer to scale back plans for student accommodation near a historic cemetery.
Historic England said it was “not convinced” by proposals to build 349 student rooms on land south of Manor Place, near Holywell Cemetery, adding the harm they would cause was “not justified or minimised”.
Its intervention came as pressure mounted on Merton College and McLaren Property, the developers, to reconsider the scheme.
They have argued it will “deliver a significant number of homes to meet the need for student accommodation” in the city, with only “minor adverse effects” on surroundings.
But a series of objectors have raised concerns, including St Catherine’s College, Magdalen College, All Souls College, Brasenose College, Oxford Preservation Trust, Oxford Civic Society, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and more than 40 members of the public.
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Most say they do not object to student housing being built on the site, which has been earmarked for that use by Oxford City Council. But they claim the four-storey buildings will loom over surroundings, including several listed college buildings, and disrupt the peaceful atmosphere of the cemetery. Concerns have also been raised that they could heighten the risk of flooding.
In a letter to the city council, Historic England said it had “regrettably” not been consulted on the scheme.
Alice Brockway, assistant inspector of historic buildings and areas, told the local authority: “We are not convinced that the harm entailed by this application is justified, or that it has been minimised.
“While we recognise there is a high demand for student housing in Oxford, there is no information to suggest that it is necessary to have 349 units in this location.
“The only way to reduce the harm would be to reduce the height of the buildings.”
Ms Brockway said the plans should be withdrawn or, if the developers were unwilling to do so, rejected by councillors.
She added: “As we recognise this revision could result in a vastly different scheme, we would like to offer further advice.”
Oxford Preservation Trust said it was “difficult to think of a more sensitive site” than where the student rooms have been proposed.
The land lies within the Central Conservation Area, and is bordered by listed buildings including the Grade II-listed Bodleian Law Library to the north, Grade I-listed St Catherine’s College to the east, Magdalen College’s Grade II-listed boundary wall and Deer Park to the south, as well as the Grade I-listed St Cross Church and Grade II-listed former St Cross School buildings to the west.
Holywell Cemetery is the burial place of Kenneth Grahame, author of children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, novelists, poets and dons.
A spokesman for McClaren insisted it was “committed to ensuring that the environmental sensitivities of the site are balanced with the need for new student accommodation”.
Paul Erskine said: “While we acknowledge Historic England’s concerns, we feel that the submitted proposal represents the best possible solution for the development of the site.”
The city council’s deadline for a decision is September 23.