The University’s construction of graduate accommodation near Port Meadow has sparked protests outside the Sheldonian and the Union, after the Castle Mill development was branded by the Lord Mayor “a massive collective failure”.
The Lord Mayor, Alan Armitage, published his criticisms in a joint letter to the Oxford Mail. He claimed, “Failure to act would do lasting damage, not only to the setting of Port Meadow but to the reputation of Oxford as a vivilised place that values and safeguards its heritage,” and that the impact of the Castle Mill development on Port Meadow “is already causing widespread public dismay.”
Three blocks of the Castle Mill were completed in 2004, while the construction of three new blocks is due to be finished by September 2013. The Council voted yesterday to begin talks with the University. The campaign, ‘Save Port Meadow from Oxford University’ mounted a protest outside the Sheldonian on Tuesday to coincide with a meeting of Congregation. After gathering by the Bodleian, the protesters were moved by University Security out onto Broad Street and Catte Street before Congregation members were due to arrive.
Protesters handed leaflets to dons, encouraging them to table an emergency motion on the construction works near Port Meadow. However, a University spokeswoman told Cherwell, “the Congregation meeting was focussed exclusively on the issue at hand, i.e. the draft Strategic Plan”.
“I think we drew ourselves to Congregation’s attention. We managed to stand at both gates so nobody who went in could be unaware of us, and for those who didn’t take a leaflet we shouted our message loud and clear,” said Sushila Dhall, one of the organisers.
In a letter to the Vice-Chancellor, campaign organiser Toby Porter said, “We will be outside the Congregation today to ask you… What is going on? What are your plans now? When will you meet directly with us? Will you be reducing the height of the buildings by two storeys? Are you going to recognise that a terrible mistake has been made, however unintentionally, and preserve Oxford’s unique and wonderful Port Meadow for future generations?”
Porter alleged that the University had not engaged with the campaign, citing two radio shows on BBC Radio Oxford and a meeting of the West Area Planning Committee, to none of which the University sent a eepresentative. She also claimed that the University had “not yet responded to requests made by both Nicola Blackwood MP and Council Leader Bob Price to invite a community representative to these discussions, or brief them as to what [their] plans are.”
Porter further alleged, “the Planning Committee instructed the Head of City planning to start negotiations with you to reduce the ‘size and impact’ of the buildings, but in the 10 days since, construction appears to have continued unabated.”
The University declined to confirm or deny the veracity of Porter’s claims, but a spokesperson told Cherwell, “We are currently in conversation with the City Council’s planning officers and we do not have anything further to add until these discussions have been concluded.”
“We recognise that the Castle Mill development has aroused some strong feelings and that these have every right to be heard.” She continued, “The University has acted in good faith throughout and in line with proper procedures as laid down by the relevant authorities for all the planning and building phases of the project.”
OUSU Vice-President (Graduates), Christopher Gray, commented, “Affordable graduate housing is a priority for OUSU and for students, thus we support the development of sites such as Castle Mill. We understand the concerns over the aesthetic effect on the view from Port Meadow, but the time to raise them has unfortunately passed. Students are also residents and value the beauty of Oxford as much as anyone else.”
A smaller protest gathered on St. Michael Street by the entrance to the Oxford Union on Wednesday night, just before a talk by Michael Moritz, who donated £75 million to the University last year. Open letters addressed to Moritz were handed out to members of the Union as they entered, and a copy of the letter was delivered to Moritz by Sally Jenkins, a member of the Campaign and the Oxford Union.
Jenkins commented, “Michael Moritz seemed very happy to accept our letter. I don’t know whether he’d been told to expect a letter, but he didn’t seem surprised, and I did have the feeling that he’d take the trouble to read it. Amazing man.”