by Mary Gill, co-chair of WWCC
Over the last three years, we have seen a planning application come and go, and another one in its place. Again, many local people oppose the proposed development. I asked myself, how did we get into this situation; is it a case of NIMBY and anti-development sentiment of a ‘vocal minority of older residents’, or is that the Vale and their chosen developer have pushed us into a ‘Hobson’s choice’?
I looked at the sequence of events, and conclude that Vale’s decisions have taken us inexorably to where we are, even though each one may have seemed a good decision at the time.
The full story is quite involved, but a summary is:
Sale of Site 1 and the West Way Shopping Centre
Vale have owned the West Way Shopping Centre (WWSC) since 2001, having purchased it as an investment property, and taken revenue from the centre since then. The idea of re-development of Botley dates back to at least 2011.
In 2011, the first decision was made to sell Elms Court, Grant Thornton Office block, Seacourt Hall, Baptist Church, part of Co-op and adjacent car park, marketed under a co-operation agreement with the other owners. This was marketed as a ‘retail opportunity’ anticipating that a supermarket would take it, and the proceeds used to refurbish WWSC.
In 2012, Doric offered also to buy WWSC. Vale consulted on proposals, suggested options being at least refurbishment or possible redevelopment of the combined site (first consultation). The Vale effectively ignored this consultation and took the (second) decision to sell WWSC to Doric for redevelopment. Doric told the Vale Cabinet that the redevelopment would also include Field and Vale House, Elms Parade and the Vicarage. Vale’s advisers set out many risks that this decision involved. This was the third decision – to enter into the agreement sell the land for the larger development in spite of the risks identified by their advisers, without consultation with even local councillors.
Consultation and outcome of first planning application
Doric’s planning application was submitted in late 2013. After three rounds of public consultation (second, third and fourth consultations), the planning committee unanimously refused planning permission in December 2014. Hurray for public pressure and the democratic process.
Extension of sale agreement and Supplementary Planning Document
In 2015, Vale Cabinet took their fourth decision, to extend the contract with Doric – now referred to as Mace. Now Mace promised to work with us to bring forward a new planning application for re-development of Sites 1 and 2. Hence we were collectively back the same position as we were in 2012, when Vale first consulted on redevelopment.
During 2015, Vale prepared and consulted on a Supplementary Planning Document, (fifth consultation) to advise developers as to what would be a suitable redevelopment of Botley. This document looked like it had been prepared specifically to facilitate the plans which were anticipated from Mace or even Doric’s earlier plans. The SPD was adopted, and again the public felt that their views had been ignored by the Vale’s Cabinet.
At this point, I wonder where does planning policy fit in? Planning policy is supposed to be determined by objectively assessed local need, and to provide guidance such that developers can bring forward schemes in line with that policy.
We were first told by Doric (supported by the Vale) that Botley required 500 students, a large supermarket and a multi-screen cinema, and it was OK to knock down people’s homes. On renewing the contract with the Vale, we were told that 200 students, a medium size supermarket and a cinema were required. Now we are told that we require a supermarket not much larger than at present, 262 students, a hotel and 140 residential units, but no affordable housing.
So, it looks like policy is simply whatever Doric / Mace choose to put forward, from their favoured position of having an exclusive arrangement to secure and develop this land. No competing application would be considered.
We are now on the sixth consultation. Again we have responded in our hundreds, the majority objecting to the plans, on the grounds of height, bulk and scale, traffic conflict, parking and infrastructure.
We’ve been clear throughout as to what Botley needs. WWCC surveys show that we want a retail-led development, with a range of shops, services and leisure commensurate with a local service centre, with some residential accommodation specifically to address the housing needs for the local area. Some people (37%) favoured redevelopment of Sites 1 and 2, while 46% favoured some redevelopment and some refurbishment.
What are the options?
The situation we face, as a result of a series of decisions over the last four to five years, is a developer who needs to put forward a development which does not match defined needs, in order to satisfy the agreement entered into in 2012 (and renewed in 2015).
Mace are arguing that their development needs to be thus, in order for them to make a suitable return on their investment. We are being told that it is this or nothing, or that the alternative could be worse.
However, in the event that this redevelopment does not go ahead, there are options. The Vale are still owners of the WWSC, and could reconsider the redevelopment or refurbishment options, either with Mace or another developer. We would still support the local centre, and there is no reason to believe that businesses would not be attracted to the centre if suitable rents were charged.
The Vale, Mace and the public could work together constructively to bring forward a suitable development. If only the planning committee are convinced that what they see in front of them is just not good enough for Botley.
For a longer history of the development process read the History of West Way here.