A GOVERNMENT minister has said the people of Oxford are owed an apology for the handling of the controversial Castle Mill buildings.

During a visit to the city yesterday, Planning Minister Nick Boles said both Oxford City Council and the university should be “profoundly ashamed” of the design.

And he said: “Everything that I’ve heard, everything that I have gained from the independent review, suggests to me that this was a planning process in which consultation was wholly inadequate, borderline totally absent.”

He met MP for Oxford West Nicola Blackwood and campaigners at the student accommodation blocks in Port Meadow to see the impact of the
buildings on Oxford’s “dreaming spires” for himself.

He said: “Everybody understands that there is intense housing pressure in Oxford and that the university absolutely has to build more student accommodation. I believe that this is an example of exactly how not to go about doing that.”

He labelled the buildings “disgraceful” and said: “I think that this design is possibly one of the worst designs I've seen of any set of new buildings to go up in the last 10 years. Frankly, the only thing it reminds me of is the Maze Prison.

“I think the idea that this is the first view, from one of the most precious pieces of land in Oxfordshire, is something of which the university and the council should be profoundly ashamed.

“Both the university and the council have a responsibility to the community of Oxford to do something about it, to lessen the impact of these buildings and to make sure that the process in future never allows something like this to happen again.

“I think that the university and the council should be looking very hard at whether any of those can be, in some way, be mitigated or ameliorated.

“I also think that they owe an apology to the people of Jericho, the people of Wolvercote, and indeed everybody who knows Oxford, who lives in Oxford and who loves Oxford.”

Nicky Moeran, of the Save Port Meadow group, said: “Government process can work well but this is an example of how that process can fail. We are extremely grateful to Nick Boles for taking the time to come here today.”

And Nicola Blackwood, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said: “I think that here we have got some clear breaches of consultation, of the right information going to the planning committee.

“We will now have to wait and see what happens with the environmental impact assessment which the university is carrying out.”

Also agreeing with Mr Boles’ comments was Helen Marshall, director of the Oxfordshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

She said: “I would absolutely agree with him that it is not the planning system which is at fault here, it is the rules which have not been followed.”

Mr Boles, a Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, visited Oxford to meet the campaigners last year but was unable to comment publically on the issue because it was subject to a judicial review which he might have been asked to rule on.

An independent report released last month, commissioned by the city council, concluded that while a series of errors led to a consultation being inadequate the authority itself did nothing wrong.

City council leader Bob Price said this meant it “wouldn’t make any sense” for the authority to apologise.

He added: “We have had an independent review by a very eminent planning expert which came up with aclear set of recommendations and found there were no areas in which the council had failed to meet its obligations.

“That things could have been done better is a matter of fact in retrospect but at the time nobody, including any amenity groups, was under any illusions that this was an issue they wanted to take up.”

Oxford University spokesman Peter Wilton said: “A full independent review has been conducted and published on the planning process by an independent reviewer. We have acted in good faith throughout and look forward to meeting with the reviewer to discuss the issues he raises and the recommendations he makes.”

The Oxford Mail asked whether the university would apologise but a spokesman ignored the question.