West Way Community Concern


How did we get here? a history of the West Way development plans

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.

I obtained information from the Vale, via Freedom of Information, and this can be found on our website here. I even wrote a pantomime about it, as therapy, which I’ve updated a bit.

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.

Planning Policy?

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.

Latest consultation

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.

Advertisements


Is the Mace proposal primarily a matter of financial sustainability?

Tony Wood, local resident and business owner

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) often means planners focus on Financial Sustainability; a problem faced over the whole country, not just in Botley. To maximise the financial sustainability, prioritising productivity should be the prime concern when decision making about land resources. Making such decisions must have regard for the surrounding economic landscape and strategic imperatives. Proposals that build on existing strength can be considered as low risk. Those that revolutionise what an area delivers to the economy are high risk. The higher the risk there will be an expectation of a higher return to justify the investment. If there is doubt about the business case the proposal should be rejected. So is this a case of a developer pushing the law of mathematics – lets consider the numbers and risk factors of this proposal.

The Mace proposal:

Retail – This development continues to focus on serving the local population and workforce. There is limited scope to increase customer base but the housing and employment infrastructure needs a sustainable local retail offer to be viable. To increase its value you could:

  • Promote flexibility and ease of trade (perhaps using the internet)
  • Improve product value
  • Build more buildings to contain more customers

Mace has pursued the build more buildings approach. Specifically, given the local limits on transport and parking, they have elected to build various types of accommodation. The size of the existing catchment area means this approach is unlikely to add more than 5% to the potential customer base.

At its peak, before the recession, the 2000/2500 sq ft retail units were generating c.£36,000/year; around £14-£16/sq ft. This is unlikely to increase, as the value of trade will remain broadly similar.

Student Flats – Student rents are lowest near the station, rising to their highest levels in Cowley (c.25-30% higher). Clearly location matters to students, valued more than accommodation standard; prices do not vary within the popular student areas. Students look for a minimum standard, not a gold standard. Landlords face a price cap.

Assuming new student accommodation will be worth the same as accommodation near the station, the 200 sq ft rooms will be worth c.£100/week, amounting to c.£26/sq ft. However, as communal areas cannot be charged for separately (unlike for leasehold flats), this means the real value will be closer to £18-£20/sq ft.

Development of student accommodation in more desirable locations may affect the rents chargeable for the student flats in Botley, for example the Carfax development for Christchurch College. Whilst Mace may succeed in letting these units, longer-term occupation will need a price competitive strategy; £18-£20/sq ft may be optimistic.

The Hotel – At 122 beds, this does not seem to add significantly to hotel accommodation in Oxford. Whilst the location is close to the City, poor transport links due to congestion and parking constraints count against it. Redbridge and Pear Tree sites, the closest competition, are co-located with the park and ride car parks. Pear Tree is undergoing substantial investment in transport and other infrastructure. It is growing its park and ride. There are many large business parks in the immediate vicinity providing a natural client base. Oxford Parkway station gives guests easy access to the city, all major business parks, London and eventually Cambridge. Growing the capacity, particularly at Pear Tree will be easy. Finding an operator for a Botley hotel is possible but they may end up discounting rooms more often than they may like.

Residential flats – more housing is required in Oxfordshire. However, the idea of building 100s of homes on green land next to a small town is becoming a challenge politically; therefore brown field sites look attractive. To grow economically there is a competing need. Commercial sites benefit from the principles of business clustering and need large sites; housing can be built on small sites. The government is adapting NPPF to prioritise small plot development.

The proposed 2-bed apartment fitted to a high standard currently has a rental value of c.£1200/month, based on an apartment size of between 700-750 sq ft – a value of about £20/ sq ft. These flats will be valued at around £260k. The flats are liquid assets meaning each unit is saleable for a relatively small sum of money. This is their true value to Mace.

An Alternative – Carter Jonas commercial letting agency recently said grade A accommodation developed in Oxford would command an asking price £30/ sq ft. Milton Park already averages £27/ sq ft. Oxford averages slightly less but that is because the legacy stock is lower grade. We always had office accommodation at West Way but tenants left because the buildings were poor quality.

Of course transport links into the city and parking limitations would still be a problem. They are issues confronting all landowners and businesses in the area  and local councils are pondering solutions to these problems. There are exciting initiatives such as the Oxford City deal to consider and what challenges park and ride strategy or the Oxford flood relief scheme might pose. These are not considered in this application.

In conclusion, the vulnerability of the financial argument has driven the scale of the building. However it is questionable if the risk factors that are inherent in the proposal are sufficiently compensated by the expected return to describe it as ‘financially sustainable’. There is still an opportunity irrespective of what happens at the planning meeting. If we are serious about NPPF goals, let’s get round the table as a collective and solve the fundamental barriers to economic growth. Perhaps then we should decide what should be built on individual sites and Mace can deliver what they are really good at, which is creating a set of quality buildings.


Ghost Town

 

by David Tompkins, Principal of David Tompkins Estate Agents, Botley

I have recently enjoyed a short stay in a most beautiful hotel. This hotel had the dubious accolade for being the most haunted hotel in Britain. Suffice to say I came across no ghost during my weekend.

On returning to work in my Estate Agents office in West Way Shopping Centre it did remind me of a Ghost Town/Suburb. Wikipedia’s interpretation of a Ghost Town is a town that has been abandoned. I take the view that the Vale of White Horse District Council have already “abandoned” the shopping centre and have let down the local residents of Botley.

Having plied my trade in Estate Agency in the precinct since the heady days of Adkin in 1981 and independently since 1998 I feel that I am very much in the front line in hearing the concerns of not only my fellow business colleagues but also those of the Botley Community.

With units closing down for one reason or another, in what seems to be on a regular basis, it is a case of who shall be next? The precinct is fraught with Chinese whispers.

From the many people that I speak to on a daily basis they all agree that the precinct needs a major overhaul. I don’t think I have spoken to one person who is in favour of student accommodation.

In my Estate Agency days back in the 1980’s we would sell many properties to parents who were looking to buy for their son or daughter coming to Oxford to study. This does not happen anymore as students want to be in the City Centre and look upon Botley as being “too far out” to reside.

Such newly built student accommodation would in my view become a white elephant.

I also feel that there is no need for a hotel. Many of the colleges in Oxford go over to accepting tourists during the summer months by offering bed and breakfast accommodation in the vacant student rooms. Imagine American tourists being offered a room with a view overlooking Christchurch Meadow or a room with a view in a high rise building overlooking the A34 by-pass. This is a no brainer.

Botley is a lovely area to live and work and we all want it to continue that way. What we need is the right balance and blend of units. You cannot please everybody all the time but I feel that the Vale of White Horse District Council have already made their decision.

Please do not abandon us yet!


Botley Community Life – will it be killed off?

by Ruth Deech (Baroness Deech of Cumnor)

Botley is like a much loved relative. Faded, yes, but surprisingly up-to-date and always ready to help out and join in on all sorts of occasions. We certainly would not put a “do not resuscitate” notice on her, move her into a tower block or foist unwelcome lodgers on her

Botley shopping needs a facelift, and the empty office block should be renovated or removed. Other than that, it is one of the most useful life-support systems one could want. From undertakers to Polish deli, from supermarkets to post office, from barber to banks, the whole of life can be catered for – apart from fashion (that would be nice). The developers clearly do not care about the lifestyle of the local residents and remind me of the greedy relatives who want to take the elderly well-off aunt to Zurich for euthanasia.

I have objected repeatedly to the Vale about the planned hotel and the student residences. I have given them the letter from Oxford University stating that the university has no interest in and would not want students living in Botley. The developers have ignored the already plentiful supply of student rooms in Oxford: the colleges have a “live-in” policy, that is, they try, and in most cases succeed, in housing within their own property all their students, and in particular they make sure that students arriving from abroad are allocated a room. Many new student residences have been built in the centre of the city recently, and a few students always want to live away from college in any case, but with friends of their own choosing, usually from their own college or subject of study. The idea put forward by Mace that random students, whether graduates, undergraduates or even language students (much younger and here only for a few weeks) could all muck in together, move in and out together on set dates, and live without cars, at rents higher than those charged by colleges is absurd. Likewise lecturers, or visiting professors from abroad, who want to live in the centre and need cars. Moreover, were the student blocks to be built in the concrete wilderness that is planned, student life would inevitably spill out onto the open spaces, and so there would be restaurants and “night life” that the developers think appeal to students but are definitely not what we want as locals.

Their notions about transport are ridiculous and inaccurate as well. We who have lived here for years know that it can take an hour to get to Headington (a destination for Brookes’ students) and that there is no direct bus connection to north Oxford (University students’ destination). The buses are few enough and the prospect of hundreds of students and maybe even hotel guests cramming on to them at rush hours is simply anti-social. The developers have not done their homework on student demand or transport. Nor have they considered clearly how we, the locals, will get to Botley for a light shopping without having to park in a multi-storey with tickets. Ease of access is crucial at the moment and that will go. I cannot imagine how disabled shoppers would cope. Take away ease of access and one might as well continue on to Waitrose or even to the city centre. Then there is the sheer ugliness of the proposed buildings, their overbearing height and lack of architectural attractiveness.

For the developers, it is all about a return on their money; for us it is the death of the familiar. Already planning blight is leading to several empty units, and a creeping desolation behind Elms Parade. They want to wear us with wound by wound until we give up. Time for the Vale to stand up for the interests of its residents, and not to be seduced by the prospect of financial gain. Given the new Westgate and the other developments along Botley Road, if they destroy the cosy convenience of Botley shopping, no phoenix will ever arise again from its ashes.


‘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.


Blog contents listing

The West Way Blog is a platform for individuals to share their personal views, concerns and suggestions on the future of Botley’s development. None of the views express the official opinion or judgement of the WWCC committee unless explicitly stated. We welcome a wide range of views and comments, which must be respectful and civil in tone. We have published a number of blog posts during consultation with more to follow:

  • Feb 24th: Game on and plenty to play for by Chris Church
  • Mar 8th: Building a sustainable centre by Ruth Mayne
  • Mar 13th: Are Mace’s proposals for student housing right for Botley? by Hilary Priestley
  • Mar 16th: Will West Way pass the cycling proficiency test? by Peter Lister
  • Mar 20th: Sustainability is also about permanent affordability …  here’s why by Fran Ryan
  • Mar 25th: West Way Redevelopment: the scales have fallen from my eyes by John Grimshaw
  • Apr 5th: New shops for old? by Stephen Parkinson
  • Apr 7th: West Way needs public spaces that are uplifting and beautiful (not dark windswept and uninspiring) by Jon Rowland
  • Apr 11th: A development for the next 30, 40 or 50 years by Philip Stevens
  • Apr 13th: ‘Better than Doric’ misses the point: character counts by Caroline Potter

 

 


1 Comment

A development for the next 30, 40 or 50 years

By Philip Stevens, local resident and retired Planning Officer

For more than 6 years the Vale has planned for a redevelopment of the centre of Botley. A large redevelopment was proposed by Doric which would have been a very large jump forward for Botley; this met considerable public opposition and was turned down by the Vale’s Planning Committee.

Mace took over and held discussions with various groups and agreed to leave Elms Parade, the Vicarage and Field House. The Vale produced a Supplementary Planning Document setting out policies which would be acceptable in planning terms for the centre of Botley.   Mace have followed the main principles of the SPD, including by proposing the highest buildings on the east side of the site, fronting Westminster Way.  After some 9 months of discussions, planning application P16/V0246/FUL was submitted.

I have studied the plans and documents on a number of occasions and have considered what are the advantages of this proposal and do they outweigh any disadvantages.

  1. 149 new residential apartments helps to meet the desperate need for housing units in the Vale and also in Oxford City which has great pressure for housing. It also helps the argument for protecting the Green Belt.
  2. More retail space for new and some existing stores, shops and restaurants.
  3. The Community ‘Hub’ contains a larger Community Hall (Seacourt Hall); a larger Library and a new Baptist Church and Hall. There will also be a café and space for flats and possibly on the second floor.
  4. There would be a hotel on the eastern boundary with 122 rooms. This would be accommodation in the style of a Premier Inn or a Travelodge, which is much needed on the west side of Oxford.
  5. There is accommodation of 262 units of academic related rooms and apartments. Mace’s documents clearly state that it is intended for postgraduates and academic staff, with some larger flats for married couples and families.   Proving there is proper management I see this provision is a definite advantage.
  6. The occupants of the residential flats, the academic rooms and the hotel can bring life to the shops and restaurants in the evenings as well as during the daytime.

As the site is smaller than for Doric this has consequences for the viability of the site. The buildings inevitably have to be higher, but the highest buildings are on the eastern boundary where they have least effect on West Way and Arthray Road.

The number of parking places on the site are limited, but free parking is proposed for the first 2 hours.   Beyond that charges are proposed in order to deter long term parking. The occupiers of the residential flats could have parking vouchers.

There are several changes which I would like to recommend, such as public toilets in the main part of the development, and a discussion about parking charges.

Overall, this is the best proposal we have seen and I fear that we could not get a better one within at least the next 10 years.   The present centre is struggling from very little investment over the 60 years of its life.   Botley deserves a new centre which will be able to thrive;   I believe that a new centre will have to be appropriate for the next 30, 40 or 50 years.

Therefore, I am supporting the present proposals, but subject to several comments.