Reg Little on the row that is brewing over the planned building of student flats in a conservation area of Oxford

It is already being talked about as “a second Castle Mill”. Proposals to put up student accommodation blocks in Manor Place, Oxford, could hardly have come forward at a more sensitive time, with no end in sight to the bitter planning battle over the student blocks built on the edge of Port Meadow.

But even without fresh memories of the Castle Mill development — for which even the Planning Minister Nick Boles says the city council and the university should be “profoundly ashamed” — conservationists were always going to be uneasy about extensive building at Manor Place.

Close to Magdalen College, the Grade I-listed St Catherine’s College and Holywell Cemetery, it is difficult to imagine how any substantial development on the Merton College-owned site could avoid opposition from heritage groups and neighbours such as Prof Marc Lackenby.

The professor of mathematics at St Catherine’s College, said: “It is one of the most sensitive locations in the city, just north of the Magdalen Deer Park.

“The deer park is one of Oxford’s iconic locations, and the view from the college buildings north across the park is particularly famous and beautiful.”

The public consultation held in Merton College at the end of January did little to ease his concerns.

“McLaren Property, the developers, distributed their artist’s impression of the impact of the development on this view. It showed how dominating and ugly their plans are, and how the four-storey buildings will loom above the deer park.

“I understand that McLaren will be applying for planning permission soon. In my opinion, if the council were to grant permission, the public outcry against it would be similar to the opposition to the Castle Mill development. I went to the public consultation because the development will be adjacent to that of my college, St Catherine’s. “Fortunately, the effect on us of these plans will probably be fairly limited, although still negative.

“But I am very concerned at the impact on Magdalen’s Deer Park and also the historic cemetery. This is all part of our shared heritage that should be preserved.”

Yet Stuart Black, of McLaren Property, is able to point to the fact that the site has been earmarked for student accommodation, being identified in the city council’s adopted Sites and Housing Plan as a site to help meet the growing demand for student accommodation.

While located within the City and University Conservation Area, with the River Cherwell running close by, the developer argues that trees screen “the majority of the adjacent buildings, creating a private space removed from the wider area”.

McLaren proposes building 294 new en-suite student study rooms, with common areas, laundry rooms, cycle parking and outdoor amenity space, with three pavilion buildings centred on series of courtyard gardens.

Peter Thompson, chairman of Oxford Civic Society, said that while happy with the proposed materials of natural stone walls and slate roofs, he believes the three- and four-storey buildings would spoil views and block light from an important heritage site — with the cemetery next door his greatest concern.

In a letter from the society to McLaren, he says that one of the buildings would be just three metres from the cemetery wall — resulting in it having a “most overbearing and destructive of the character of the Holywell cemetery”.

He goes on to warn: “The peace and tranquillity of the cemetery, to which the public have access, will be destroyed, and there will be serious shadowing from sunlight.”

It would be difficult to overstate the heritage value and uniqueness of the small cemetery tucked behind St Cross Church.

Dating from the mid-19th century, it is managed for its wildlife, with brambles, bushes and trees, and is viewed as a pioneering site for urban nature conservation.

Although in the summer it can appear slightly overgrown, it contains some 1,266 graves, including 32 college heads and 156 assorted dons and professors.

There are two of Tolkien and C.S Lewis’s Inkling friends buried here — the poet Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson, the Merton English don. Then there is the great drama critic Ken Tynan, the celebrated Shakespearian critic A.C. Bradley, and science fiction writer James Blish, who achieved fame with a line of novels based on the TV series Star Trek.

The most sought-out grave, however, is that of Kenneth Grahame, the author of the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. with the cemetery fittingly close to water.

For the site of the student accommodation is low-lying and located on the bank on one of the River Cherwell’s courses.

The Oxford Civic Society now argues that this means the site will have a propensity to flood.

“Careful design to mitigate flood risk is necessary, and may be difficult for the single-storey building, whose roofline must be low enough to allow views over,” says Mr Thompson.

The accommodation would be managed by a third-party commercial operator. Rooms may be openly available to students from both universities and possibly other education institutions. “Potentially, the accommodation could be made available on the open student market. It is concerning,” said the Civic Society chairman.

He said the risk of antisocial behaviour and the blocks being occupied by immature and unregulated non-university students could be avoided by a council condition that residents should be students from either of Oxford’s universities.

The echoes of Castle Mill are clear, although with one stand-out difference. This time the opposition is being voiced before the submission of the planning application, approval and the completion of the student blocks.