West Way Community Concern

‘Better than Doric’ misses the point: character counts

by Caroline Potter, local resident and co-chair of West Way Community Concern

I’ve been reading through the 100+ individual comments submitted so far on Mace’s planning application. The clear majority of these are objections, with more coming in every day.

‘But surely,’ I have heard some people say, ‘this is better than Doric’s plan. What’s the issue?’

The issue is that we had already achieved ‘Better than Doric’ by March 2015, when Mace agreed to withdraw its appeal against the unanimous rejection of the Doric application in exchange for an extended contract with the Vale. A condition of this agreement was that Mace would only seek to redevelop the 1960s shopping precinct, the Baptist Church, and the disused office blocks: in other words, the area that the vast majority of residents recognize as in need of investment and redevelopment. The battle over the two most emotive ‘line in the sand’ issues from Doric’s application – the destruction of Field House and Elms Parade – was won over a year ago. Mace’s new application was destined to be ‘better than Doric’ by default.

The key issue now, as it was with Doric in 2014, is the scale and character of development proposed. It was the main basis for rejecting Doric’s application. Mace’s application includes four adjacent buildings of 9 storeys (flats), 8 storeys (hotel), 7 storeys (students), and 6 storeys (students), three of which run more than 50m in length; this is a big step up in height and density from the two current tower blocks on site (Elms Court and West Way House, both 5 storeys and relatively small footprints). Owing to these excessive building heights and the traffic/parking implications of dense development, Mace’s plan is seen by objectors as grossly misaligned with the current scale and character of Botley.

Does any of this matter? Aren’t ideas of appropriate scale and character just fuzzy words that planning authorities throw into their policies to sound nice? On the contrary, local character matters a great deal. It features throughout planning policy, from the national-level NPPF to the most local level Botley SPD (and all levels in between). Desirable scale and character can be difficult to describe in advance, but it’s easy to spot developments where these have gone wrong. In this case, it could be the difference between a friendly, inviting local shopping centre and an imposing, jarring urban block that casts long shadows over the public realm.

One of Botley’s positive character features is high space-to-height ratios: relatively wide streets between fairly low buildings, which gives the area its feel of openness and connection to the nearby countryside. I didn’t know how to describe it at the time, but it was the feature of the area that attracted me to live here seven years ago (by virtue of its sharp contrast with the crowded, noisy street where I lived previously). All of the planning and design guidance states that new development should not harm, and should preferably enhance, the features that we value most in our neighbourhood. So the relevant question is not ‘Is it better than Doric?’ but rather ‘Does this development make Botley a better place?’

Look at the plans and ask yourself some questions to help you decide:

  • Would you use the new shops more than you use the current ones?
  • Do you think that the balance between retail, community, and accommodation uses is right?
  • Does this look like a place where you would enjoy spending time?
  • Would it be convenient for you to visit on foot, by bicycle and/or by car?
  • Do you think it would be a nice place to live or work?

‘Better than Doric’ doesn’t help you to answer any of these questions. Make no mistake, the achievements of this community in coming together to stop the Doric plans were tremendous. But resting on past laurels doesn’t address the task at hand: to evaluate Mace’s current proposal on its own merits (or otherwise). A decision will be made on this application by June. There is still time for us as a community to insist on a development that brings out the best of Botley. Do you think the shapes and sizes of the buildings need to change? Should the numbers of student units be reduced by half (a viable number, equivalent to Alice House in Oxford City)? Is there something missing from the development (public toilets, a crèche)? Let’s stay focused on the present and let the Vale know what we think of THIS application, irrespective of what’s come before it. Time is almost up.

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