Issue 65 — September, 2008
Waiting for the Inspector
Jericho awaits the decision on the canalside appeal inquiry
The appeal by Spring Residential against the City Council’s refusal of planning permission for the canalside site was completed on August 21st with the visit of Planning Inspector, Ava Wood, to the now-derelict boatyard and a canalboat expedition to Yarnton.
On the first day of the appeal, Spring’s barrister, Jeremy Cahill, conceded that the history of this development had been a ‘public relations nightmare’. The strength of local opposition was evident even that morning outside the Town Hall, as a ‘silent protest’ drew around 200 people, including Philip Pullman who was interviewed live on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme.
The six-day hearing had a packed agenda. The Inspector, a town planner, heard from more than a dozen expert witnesses testifying on a wide range of issues, from boatyard facilities, to planning policy to flood control. Although this was not a trial it did at times have the atmosphere of a Crown Court. Some of the evidence was painstakingly tracked with the aid of mobile phone records.
Spring faced opposition from three directions: first, the City Council; second, the Jericho Community Boatyard; third, the combined efforts of the Jericho Living Heritage Trust and the Jericho Community Association.
The Council had given nine grounds for refusal, though subsequently withdrew some because Spring had made changes that responded to them. At the appeal they addressed three, of which the most crucial was that of affordable housing. Spring was offering just 19 of the 54 flats for this purpose – 35% – when the Local Plan for the area, adopted in November 2005, stipulates 50%. Spring argued that although the new plan required 50% they had been given the impression over the telephone that 35% would suffice. However they could not produce any written evidence of this. As the Council’s barrister pointed out, it seems extraordinary that they would not have asked for written confirmation of such a critical issue. Planning officer, Murray Hancock said that he had no recollection of such a discussion, and that in any case he would not have been in a position to give such an assurance.
Bellway Homes had previously also been refused planning permission on this site and their subsequent appeal was turned down in August 2005. British Waterways then re-marketed the site to six ‘preferred bidders’. They received six offers. Two were lower than £2.4 million; one was £3 million, one was £3.5 million; and another at £3.98 million, was from Berkeley Homes. But the highest bidder was Spring, with £4.076 million. British Waterways accepted Spring’s bid in April 2006 and exchanged contracts with the developer in September 2006.
Spring clearly paid too much. The Council requires developers to demonstrate that their proposal is ‘viable’, that it will deliver what is required from the site which in this case included, in addition to the affordable housing, a public piazza and land for a new community centre.
Spring estimated that if 35% of the flats were affordable housing they could sell these and the more expensive flats for £14.6 million – the ‘gross development value’. This, after taking into account construction and other costs, would give them a profit of around £2.3 million which is considered standard. However if the affordable housing were 50% then to achieve the same level of profit they should have paid only £2.2 million; at over £4 million they would make scarcely any profit at all.
Why then did they offer so much? Experts from the Council suggested that developers frequently overbid initially in order to get themselves ‘at the table’, then ‘chip’ the price down when it becomes clearer what the site is really worth.
Spring’s case was countered not just by the Council but by local MP, Evan Harris, who attended much of the proceedings. He pointed out that, apart from the ‘developer lobby’, everyone in Oxford supported the 50% requirement. The people who would lose out if this appeal was successful would be those not represented, the ‘hidden homeless’. It would, he said, be a travesty of democracy if the appeal were successful on the basis of unproven allegations of a mobile phone conversation between Oxford and Sydenham railway station. “We expect the council to hold the line on 50%.”
Harris’s burst of rhetoric clearly rattled Spring’s barrister Jeremy Cahill, who repeatedly turned round to look at the clock and complained that the MP was being given too much time to make his case. In his final submission he accused Harris of being ‘hysterical’. The Inspector disagreed. She said Harris had been ‘passionate’ and asked Cahill to withdraw his comment. He refused to do so.
Inadequate boatyard offering
Next came the case for the Jericho Community Boatyard. The boating community, and most people in Jericho, want to see the working boatyard return. Oxford has 100 long-term moorings whose boats need to pass safety inspections every four years and require somewhere they can be lifted out of the water.
At the Bellway appeal the Inspector had concluded that “if these facilities are not to be protected at the appeal site, they need to be replaced in another equally accessible and suitable location.” Spring had a two-part proposal. One was to have at the southern end of the site a small ‘working berth’ that could be used for in-water activities such as electrical and engine repairs. But their main solution was to provide £126,000 to upgrade the boatyard at Yarnton run by Steve Goodlad, who had previously offered facilities in Jericho. They also suggested that some repairs might take place at College Cruisers. In addition, as required by British Waterways, they proposed inserting in the canal a winding hole for large boats to turn.
The Jericho Community Boatyard with 158 members, including 68 boaters and 43 Jericho residents, represents the boaters of Oxford. It wants a yard in Jericho where owners can live aboard their boats while undertaking work. It says that the Yarnton site is too small, and too remote with inadequate public transport – the nearest bus stop is a kilometre away. It is also on the towpath side of the canal with safety risks for the general public. There are no toilets and access from the A44 is dangerous. Furthermore, it is in a flood zone and its development would require permission from Cherwell District Council.
Nor could the Yarnton site perform the same valuable community function as the Castle Mill boatyard which had been a hub of the boating community. A survey of Oxford boaters confirmed that they did not consider the facilities at Yarnton a suitable alternative and that the proposed working birth was inadequate for most purposes and badly located.
The third source of opposition to Spring at the appeal was provided by the Jericho Living Heritage Trust, a charity that aims to protect and promote the heritage of Jericho, and the Jericho Community Association. Their barrister, Trevor Standen, pointed out that the development would bring serious flood risks and that efforts to reduce this would require a gradient on the site that might see push chairs rolling into the water. He also offered witnesses who argued that the proposed buildings with their relentless horizontal lines had a scale and mass inappropriate in Jericho. They would also block the view along Cardigan street of the ‘Tower of the Four Winds’ at the Radcliffe Observatory.
Standen also pointed out that the proposed path between the buildings and the canal was too narrow and that cyclists using it would have to dismount. He and others argued that the proposed lift bridge should be located at the square.
For the Jericho Community Association, Secretary Jenny Mann said: “We want a sensitive and imaginative development. We have three main objections to Spring’s proposal. First, the bulk and height of the buildings are completely out of keeping with the immediate area and could significantly increase the threat of flooding. Second, we need a vibrant public square rather than the one proposed which will be a narrow and gloomy area that residents fear will become a meeting place for drug users and vagrants. Third, we think that this development will close off Jericho from the canal.”
The appeal coincided with the filming at the Town Hall of a court scene for the TV series Lewis. The star, Kevin Whately, added his support to the opposition.
Now the Inspector has a mountain of documentation to mull over. In principle she could give a decision in a matter of weeks but given that this is such a high-profile case it could take a couple of months to write a ‘bullet-proof’ judgement that would withstand any legal challenge.
What will Spring do if it loses? According to Managing Director Andy Wilkins, if it loses on the issue of affordable housing it would mothball the site until ‘improved market conditions or planning conditions allow a viable scheme to come forward’. Apparently Spring has asked a potential buyer £4.7 million for the site, but if it loses the appeal, the value will certainly plummet, making a community bid for the site more realistic. If Spring hung on it would lose around £300,000 per year either in bank charges or lost interest.