Castle Mill: Grad accommodation under siege

Oxford students and residents have clashed over the upcoming Castle Mill vote by the University Congregation on February 10th, which is considering whether or not to demolish the top floor of the developement.

The vote stems from the continued controversy surrounding the £21.5 million development, consisting of 439 units of graduate accommodation on Roger Dudman Way. The five-storey accommodation blocks are prominently visible from Port Meadow, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Scheduled Ancient Monument. The vote will be taken by the Congregation, the University’s sovereign body, composed of almost 5,000 administrative and academic staff.

The planning process for the development has been repeatedly criticised. City Council heritage officer Nick Worlledge raised worries in an internal report in January 2012 that the height of the blocks could impact the visual environment around Port Meadow, just a month before planning permission was given.

An independent review, commissioned by Oxford City Council, found that whilst no breach in planning legal procedures had occurred, the consultation process had been inadequate. The Oxfordshire Green Party has also previously called the development a “horrendous blot on our historic landscape”.

OUSU, as well as Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, has repeatedly criticised the motion to remove the top floor of the blocks – one of the options given by the Independent Environment Assessment. In the first week of Hilary, OUSU agreed to oppose the campaign and on Wednesday 4th February the Council allocated £50 to materials for a demonstration outside the Sheldonian Theatre, where the vote will be taking place on February 10th.

OUSU President Louis Trup has also raised concerns about the current campaign to remove the top floors of Castle Mill in light of the cost, as well as the signifi cant impact it would have on its graduate residents with families. In a reply to a Sunday Times article which emphasised the negative aesthetics of the developement, Trup tweeted the reporter, saying, “Really shoddy Castle Mill article from @JonUngoedThomas in @thesundaytimes – like the campaign, not listening to the students this aff ects”. He continued that he “would have happily explained that ‘option 3’ will negatively impact families, local residents, and grads if only you asked”.

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Danny Waldman, the OUSU Rent and Accommodation officer, told Cherwell, “With a Council-set cap of 3,000 students allowed to ‘live out’, University-provided accommodation is clearly vitally needed.” Waldman added, “To drive over 300 students, many with families, into an already-saturated private housing market makes no sense.”

Oxford University’s Head of Government and Community Relations, Margaret Ounsley, emphasised on the University’s website the “social and economic benefits brought to the city” by the development and argued that going with option three was “nearer the everyday reality of doing the right thing.” Ounsley paid tribute to the “neatly run” and “media-savvy” campaign of ‘One Floor Off’ group.

Students from across the University have expressed concern at the estimated £30 million it would cost the University to remove the top floor, as well as provide alternative accommodation.

Wadham SU condemned the action as “absolutely unacceptable” and passed a motion, which stated, “The University should do its best to provide aff ordable accommodation, not spend money tearing it down.” The SU mandated its president to write a letter to all Wadham academics urging them to oppose the motion. Some Wadham students encouraged the University to look at other, cheaper options, which could hide the Castle Mill development such as cladding the buildings or planting trees. Many drew attention to Oxford’s status as the UK’s least affordable city to live in when compared to average local wages, and suggested that this could only worsen the situation.

CherwellTV covered the OUSU protest outside the Sheldonian on February 10th.