Last edited 22 Dec 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

The voluntary sector and the planning of Oxford

Campaigners protected their beautiful city before conservation became part of the planning system, and the voluntary sector continues to shape the debate today.

Oxford high street.png
The High Street looking west during Covid-19 lockdown (Photo: Thom Airs, May 2020).

Given that William Morris rated Oxford ‘the most important town of England’, it is no surprise that proposals for change which have threatened its established character have caused its citizens to come together in a variety of different ways to defend what they saw as precious about the city. In the period before conservation became a professional discipline within the planning system they made a real difference, and the voluntary sector continues to make an articulate contribution to the discussion on current issues.

As well as being a university city of supreme beauty, Oxford is the birthplace of the mass-produced motor car. One of the consequences has been horrendous traffic congestion on the narrow streets of the medieval centre. Possible solutions have been passionately debated ever since the second world war and have sharply divided public opinion. Most of the controversy centred on the proposal for a road across the open Christ Church meadow, which provided a tranquil rural setting to the south between the sharply defined limits of the medieval walls of the city and the River Thames. The road, intended to relieve the traffic on the High Street, was first mooted by a local architect, Lawrence Dale, in a pamphlet published in 1941. The proposal generated such outrage that Dale felt the need to respond with an expanded vision for the whole city. This envisaged an inner ring road as an opportunity for redeveloping large areas of working class housing in St Clements and St Ebbes to the east and west of the city centre. Dale saw the meadow road as a tree-lined mall located close to the river. He set out his arguments in ‘Towards a Plan for Oxford City’, published as a book by Faber and Faber in 1944. It reached a large enough audience to merit a second edition in the same year.

Partly in response, the city council commissioned the eminent planner Thomas Sharp to prepare a report on the future development of the city. This was also published as a book by the Architectural Press called ‘Oxford Replanned’ (1948). Like Dale, Sharp believed that a relief road across the meadow was essential but he placed it closer to the city walls. Despite a sensitive analysis of the historic character of the city, he proposed a brutal solution to its perceived problems with a whole network of new roads and large areas which he characterised as slums or ‘outworn’, ripe for development.

Over the next 30 years the idea of a southern relief road went through several iterations and public inquiries, with passionate arguments strongly expressed both for and against. It was only in 1972 that it was finally abandoned when the council adopted a Balanced Transport Policy that sought to discourage all non-essential traffic in the city centre by establishing bus lanes along the main routes, building park-and-ride sites around the edge of the city, and closing some central streets to traffic altogether. However, although traffic has been restricted in the High Street ever since, it was only during the recent Covid-19 lockdown that its full architectural splendour could be enjoyed without disturbance again.

The road controversy engaged both town and gown alike. One of the leading roles in the debate was taken by the Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT). It had been formed as long ago as 1926 with the stated objective of guiding ‘the development of Oxford, as to preserve and increase the beauty of the city and its surrounding neighbourhood’. From the beginning it was proactive and one of its first actions was to purchase land at Boars Hill in order to protect the distant view of the city skyline from the south. Over the years other key areas of land have been bought by the trust or donated by its supporters. In 1952 they gave to the city 180 acres of land at Shotover Hill to the east as permanent open space, and in 1959 they presented the city with a further 50 acres at South Park on the hill between Oxford and Headington. They continue to purchase other areas of land around the city that are vulnerable to development, and they carry out a variety of other activities that protect its character, promote good design and safeguard the green belt.

Between 1946 and 1948 the secretary was John Betjeman. One of the issues that he had to deal with was the future of Oxford prison. This was located within the medieval castle and the lease was due to expire in 1950, when the site would revert to the county council. In the event, the prison did not close until 1996. After a period when its only use was as a film venue, in 2004 the OPT, in partnership with the enlightened developer Trevor Osborne and Oxfordshire County Council, spearheaded a major regeneration scheme with the creation of a new retail quarter, the conversion of the prison into a hotel and the restoration of the castle by the trust as a visitor attraction. It was an extraordinarily ambitious project for a voluntary organisation, but with the assistance of a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund the scheme was successfully opened in May 2006.

This was not the first time that the trust had directly intervened to secure a desirable outcome in planning terms. In 1970, when the city council was completing the redevelopment of the St Ebbes area in line with the Sharp report, the OPT had purchased a row of three of the most historic houses to prevent their demolition. They established their offices in one of them, where they remain to this day. The campaign to preserve the houses saw two other amenity societies working in concert with the trust. The Oxford Architectural and Historical Society (OAHS) had been established as long ago as 1839. These two venerable societies were joined by the Oxford Civic Society, which had only just been founded in 1969.

The impetus for yet another society was explained by James Stevens Curl, its first chairman: ‘because a few citizens of Oxford became very worried by the erosion of the historic city’s character by the systemic destruction of the minor architecture and by the appalling scale of the road plans proposed’. From 1968 Curl had published a series of outraged articles in the Oxford Mail lambasting the city planners for their destruction of St Ebbes and the decanting of the inhabitants to soulless developments on the eastern outskirts of the city, their failure to recognise the contribution that traditional lighting, street furniture and trees made to the character of the city, and their obsession with a destructive road system. An expanded version of these articles, which set the agenda for the civic society, was published as ‘The Erosion of Oxford’ in 1977. It is gratifying to note some of the articles’ recommendations have subsequently been implemented.

Curl specifically excluded the buildings of the university from his book on the basis that they ‘can look after themselves for the time being’. That was written in the light of a major programme of restoration of both college and university buildings between 1957 and 1974, which was celebrated in the book ‘Oxford Stone Restored’, published in 1975. On the whole the university has been a good custodian of its historic buildings. It has also been a major architectural patron, and from 1960 when a Committee on Elevations and the Choice of Architects was established it has commissioned some outstanding buildings. However, some of its initiatives have been sufficiently controversial to have led to changes in planning policy. A 25-storey tower for the Department of Zoology proposed in 1962 was soundly rejected. The proposal caused the city council to adopt a policy that restricted the height of new buildings in order to protect its precious skyline. This has been largely observed down to the present day.

Five years later, in 1967, the council was more sympathetic to the university’s ambition to build a new Pitt Rivers museum and granted planning permission for a strikingly ambitious design by Pier Luigi Nervi in partnership with Powell and Moya, which involved the demolition of a large area of Victorian north Oxford, including two listed buildings. The project had the support of a number of influential advocates, including Howard Colvin, but the university failed to raise the money to build it and it was formally abandoned in 1970. The proposal had caused the OAHS to establish a Victorian Group specifically to lobby for the preservation of the north Oxford suburb. Its efforts have largely succeeded, and the council subsequently extended the conservation area to embrace the site for the proposed museum. This is now the home of Kellogg College and all the distinctive 19th-century houses in this part of the suburb have been carefully restored.

The OAHS has a long tradition of commenting on listed building applications throughout Oxfordshire. Until the re-organisation of local government in 1974 it had effectively provided the county council planning department with conservation expertise for its development control responsibilities in the absence of a dedicated team. In 1972 the city council had taken the bold step of appointing its first conservation officer, and in 1974 the four other newly-formed district councils in the wider county followed suit. The voluntary societies still have a crucial role to play in the consultation process but, with the appointment of professionally-qualified officers, conservation has formed an important element in planning policies throughout the county.

From the beginning, the conservation officers from all the district councils held regular meetings with their colleagues from Buckinghamshire and Berkshire to share common experiences and challenges. They were all members of the Association of Conservation Officers from its foundation in 1982, and the annual school of the ACO was twice held in Oxford. The last occasion was in 1996 when the theme was ‘Building Bridges: resolving conflicts in building conservation’. At the AGM the motion to move towards institute status was overwhelmingly carried. The Institute of Historic Building Conservation was duly launched the following year. As we approach our 25th anniversary it is perhaps fitting that we should reflect on those tentative first steps that were taken in Oxford and to acknowledge the part played by the voluntary sector in establishing a sympathetic climate for the values that we uphold.

This article originally appeared in Context 166, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2020. It was written by Malcolm Airs, who retired as professor of conservation and the historic environment at Oxford University in 2006. Prior to that he was conservation officer for South Oxfordshire District Council. He was chairman of the IHBC from 1998 to 2001, and president from 2001 to 2003.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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