UNIVERSITY bosses were last night urged to pull down the top two storeys of “stark and aggressive-looking” student blocks.
Despite giving permission for the Castle Mill scheme, Oxford city councillors yesterday admitted they don’t like how it looks.
Campaigners say the buildings in Roger Dudman Way, which received planning permission last February, damage the historic view of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ across Port Meadow.
And – after a hard-fought campaign by protesters – councillors have now pleaded with Oxford University to demolish the top of the half-finished buildings.
However, the council has been warned by its own officers that it could be faced with a bill of around £1m from the university for compensation if this takes place.
At an emotionally-charged meeting which was attended by around 100 campaigners and residents, councillors agreed to begin negotiations with the university.
Chairman of the councils West Area Planning Committee (WAPC) Oscar Van Nooijen said: “The city council has agreed to negotiate with the university in order to reduce the size and impact of the buildings.
“Those negotiations started yesterday.
“In addition, we will be setting up a high-level group with leading councillors and local amenity groups to learn lessons for the future.”
Councillor John Goddard, who sits on the committee, said: “We need to get this development two storeys lower, that would be our ideal.
“That is what’s needed to move it below the tree line, and that is our objective.”
As it stands, the scheme will create 312 flats and bedsits over four and five storeys on unused railway land near Oxford Station.
A review of the development was ordered in December after the Campaign to Protect Port Meadow from Oxford University (CPPMOU) handed the council a petition, signed by 1,666 people.
At Thursday’s committee meeting, representations from the CPPMOU, residents, the Freemen of Oxford and local historians were all greeted with applause from the public gallery in the Town Hall.
Sushila Dhall, who started CPPMOU, said the petition – which now has more than 2,000 signatures – would now be withdrawn from the city council and presented to the university.
The city council can revoke planning permission, but needs the Government’s approval – unless the university does not object. Either way, it would need to pay compensation.
Council officers last week warned the compensation claim could amount to a seven-figure sum.
Campaign member Toby Porter told the committee: “I know it is a difficult decision to take and could potentially cost £1m, but the chance that the university, which is severely embarrassed, would seek reparations of that amount from the city in which it is hosted is zero.”
Oxford West and Abingdon MP Nicola Blackwood met campaigners yesterday and said she was pleased with news of the negotiations. She said: “Of course the city council has a responsibility to try to ease the pressure on the local housing market and the university has a role to play in that by providing sufficient accommodation for students.
“But this should not come at an irreversible cost to a historic and environmental heritage site like Port Meadow.”
Head of city development Michael Crofton-Briggs yesterday met the university’s director of estates, Paul Goffin, to begin talks.
Mr Crofton-Briggs is due to report back to the committee in April.
A spokesman for the University of Oxford refused to say whether it would reduce the buildings’ height and who would pay the bill if it did.
Spokesman Matt Pickles said: “We welcome the report’s finding that the university acted properly when securing planning permission for the Castle Mill student accommodation development.
“We are always happy to meet with planning officers and to hear what they have to say.”
CASTLE MILL TIMELINE
February 15, 2012: Oxford City council gives Oxford University permission to build 312 students dwellings in four- and five-storey buildings at Castle Mill
October 1: Resident Sushila Dhall starts the Campaign to Protect Port Meadow from Oxford University (CPPMOU)
December 1: CPPMOU hands a petition against the development, with 1,666 signatures, to the council
December 17: Councillors order a report on how the impact of the new student accommodation, pictured, can be reduced
February 7, 2013: The west area planning committee agrees to begin negotiations with the university.