My post Oxford Canal – an alternative view – ends thus:
“This stretch of the Oxford Canal remains a peaceful and beautiful place to walk. Its slow ruin – a combination of deliberate decisions by ignorant people and gradual neglect – is a metaphor for Oxford as a whole.”
But, you might say (if you knew me) you love this city; you photograph it daily and are creating a web site extolling its virtues. Furthermore, the two councils have plans to develop the Westgate and the whole “West End”, to rebuild Bonn Square and endless other schemes to remake Oxford for the 21st Century. How can you talk of “gradual neglect”?
Well, let’s start with the first half of the complaint – “deliberate decisions by ignorant people”. We have already looked (in my post about the Oxford Canal) at the shoddy development across from the southern end of the canal and at the over-bearing one now rising by Walton Well Road as examples of the skill and care at the planning department. Let’s throw in the Cornmarket fiasco – £5m spent on resurfacing a short shopping street – as an example of the lack of any organisational ability at the either council. Pause briefly on the grandiose ideas which were abandoned, such as turning the Town Hall into a – well, I am not sure what it was going to be and nor, really, did its proponents, but they spent a lot of time and money working up the ideas before abandoning them. Mention the Aristotle Lane skate park (£50,000 which could have been spent on drainage wasted on a scheme which everyone but its promoter could see was a disaster, leaving the recreation ground a sodden mess).
This could have been drained with the £50,000 wasted on a skate park
Then there is the £240,000 spent on benches in Cornmarket which are both hideous and uncomfortable. On top (and underneath and all around like a creeping paralysis), put the Oxford Transport Strategy and everything done since by Oxfordshire County Council’s Highways department. Mix in the playground squabbling which passes for debate both between the two councils and within Oxford City Council.
Then say that this collective shambles plans to redevelop large parts of central Oxford over the next decade.
Such developments look good on CVs, and discussing them gives councillors and officers the illusion of importance – so much more significant than drains or bins or weeds. But it is the drains and bins and weeds which give a city its feel. These are what visitors notice and this is where tax-payers see most closely the disconnection between what they pay and what they get.
Let us look at the other half of my metaphor – the gradual neglect of basic things. I will just list them for now. Each warrants its own commentary in due course.
- Grass growing in the kerbs – you could graze a horse in some of them
- Uncleaned street drains which overflow whenever it rains
- Gloucester Green bus station
- Bonn Square, which does not need a major revamp, just cleaning up and caring for
- The river path from Botley Road to Medley – not just the potholes which killed a boy recently but the general air of neglect at what should be an attraction
- Signs and notices everywhere without regard to the context which they ruin
- Minor street works (usually unnecessary anyway and almost all aesthetically unattractive) done so badly that they crack and break up almost immediately.
- Oriel Square, which includes a hideous rising bollard, tacky street works and cracked, neglected surfaces, thus rolling several of my observations into one place
- Wheelie bins everywhere, both in central city streets and beautiful residential areas
- Thistles on Port Meadow
My starting-point was that the Oxford Canal remains attractive – somehow – despite the positive damage of crass decisions and the negative effect of neglect, and that it is therefore a metaphor for the city. Oxford is about to face a rolling series of big, expensive and permanent decisions made by the people who screwed up Cornmarket and the rest; the new face of the city is to be settled by the people who approved the Rewley and Walton Well developments; the traffic implications are to be handled by Oxfordshire Highways, God help us. These people cannot even deal with basic housekeeping.
Yet somehow enough of the place remains beautiful despite the erosion of its charms at the hands of those elected or paid to run and manage it. So there is no inconsistency on my part in extolling the wonders of Oxford whilst lamenting its decline. They do the same of Venice as it slips beneath the waters.
This is not just a rant against an aspect of progress in which I have no faith, nor do I want merely to be a memorialist of lost beauties. If our councils can rebuild the West End, they can unblock the drains. If they have the money to rebuild Bonn Square, they can mend the Thames towpath. If they can fine us for dropping a sweet-wrapper, they can make the Environment Agency clear the channel north of Hythe Bridge Street.
If not, why not? Whatever your position on the city’s grandiose plans, whatever your politics, and whatever view you have of our councillors and officers (and they are not all useless), can you make any case at all for the neglect shown in these pictures?
The Environment Agency seems immune from the litter diktats
The councils had ample warning that the neglected bank would cause a death
Cheap and shoddy work to start with and then not looked after
Oriel Square lies at the heart of the Oxford people come to see
What graceless oaf would put this here?
Thistles on Port Meadow
Grass growing in the gutters – the traditional image of a society in decline