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By Matt Stokes
St Hilda’s has been criticised after pulling out of a proposed development near Cowley Road because its Governing Body was unwilling to take on “such a large financial risk”.
Nuala Young, the Green Party councillor for the St. Clement’s Ward, said that St Hilda’s had acted like a “Trojan horse” by securing planning permission for the Chapel Street site only to pull out at the last minute. “We feel let down by St Hilda’s. It is like planning permission was granted under false pretences.”
However, she added: “I doubt that St Hilda’s acted with bad intentions. I wanted to discover whether the developers may have used the college to get planningpermission and then raised the price, so that it could be sold on.” Young insisted, however, that she had no proof of this.
The college was granted planning permission to build housing for 166 graduate students, along with a gymnasium and amphitheatre, but originally faced harsh criticism from residents, both on architectural grounds and because it meant family housing could not be built there. Permission was only granted on condition that college-owned houses on Iffley Road would be vacated.
Residents now fear that other educational establishments, such as language schools, will develop the Chapel Street site, while the Iffley Road site will remain in St Hilda’s possession. With both properties occupied by students, the pressure on affordable family housing would be even greater.
Cllr Young also pointed out that “the site had been allocated for housing and creating employment in the previous housing strategy plan.”
However, Tom Knollys, committee member for planning on the Divinity Road Area Residents’ Association (DRARA), pointed out that the grant for planning permission in October clearly stated that only students from Oxford or Oxford Brookes would be able to live in the accommodation. As a result, any new buyer would have to submit a new planning application. Furthermore, St Hilda’s had no legal obligation to ensure the Iffley Road houses would be turned into family accommodation anyway.
However, Knollys suggested progress could be made on the site: “St Hilda’s is at liberty to withdraw from the scheme. Hopefully there may now be a chance of a revised scheme for a new user which could lessen the impact on the immediate neighbours, or even a replacement scheme for much-needed housing, which DRARA would welcome and for which this site would appear to be very suitable.”
Penelope Newsome, a resident in the area, said: “I imagine St Hilda’s realised that a development of the size that had been planned would be just too expensive for them. Without the theatre and those fancy items, there would be plenty of room for lower accommodation, which would satisfy some of the objections of local residents and the next-door primary school.
“Of course we would all rather see affordable housing but this would obviously raise problems. These issues demonstrate the problem in Oxford of competing demands. There is simply not enough available land, and no very easy answers.”
Richard Gamlin, from Ardent Ltd, said: “We have already had a lot of interest in the site. We might develop it ourselves or sell it for another party to develop. We are presently just looking at what opportunities there are.”
Graham Jones, the Lib Dem councillor for the St Clement’s ward and also a researcher at St John’s College, accused the Green Party of “playing the populist card”, leading to a “divided community with individuals labelled as ‘anti-resident’ or ‘anti-student’”.
He continued: “I’d be very happy with an element of student accommodation on the site alongside ‘affordable’ housing for other groups. We’ll never be able to house all the 9,000 people in need of a home in Oxford without building outside the city boundaries, but in the meantime we should do what we can when we can.”
Young also said: “There simply isn’t enough accommodation, and students end up in boxes. I like our new policy whereby students are increasingly given accommodation on the main roads. If the planning permission doesn’t allow another establishment to build up the site, I would be very relieved. It would help keep the balance of our community between students and residents.”
St Hilda’s College did not reply to a request for comment.