The photographs show the bridge which connects Berkeley Homes’ Waterways site with North Oxford at the western end of Frenchay Road.
There used to be a swing bridge here, Oxford Canal Bridge No 239, which lay a little south of the present bridge – it pre-dated the building of Frenchay Road and abutted the end of the houses in Hayfield Road in what now is a dead piece of weed-filled ground.
This was the northern line of Oxford in 1900; you could cross the swing-bridge, walk over fields past a few buildings to a foot-crossing on the railway line and out into Burgess Field, as indeed you still could in 1939. By the time I knew it, the swing-bridge had become a lift-bridge which could be lowered if you wanted to cross it.
This is no elegy for a lost pastoral paradise. An ugly electricity sub-station was put here (off the left of the photograph) in (I think) the 1930s, and there was a car scrap yard somewhere down here after the war. My complaint is not that the planners allowed building on the land to the west, but that they missed the chance to make the bridge an enhancement and gave us this instead, together with a matching monstrosity a little to the North.
The bridge was the subject of a “consultation” distinct from those for the development itself. The proposal, promulgated in May 1999, related to “details of siting, design and external appearance of new bridge over Oxford Canal…from Frenchay Road”. I put “consultation” in quotation marks to distinguish it from the normal use of the word.
The planning officers were, then as now, dull timeservers who did not know a good building from a bad one, and didn’t give a toss anyway. They filled in forms and processed applications but were entirely ignorant of those qualities which make a development fit its context, and had no sense that they were planning for future generations.
The developer, Berkeley Homes, is a money-making machine. Its houses – the things which sell – look all right, but Berkeley Homes are not in the least interested in the infrastructure or the wider context beyond what is necessary to get the plans through and to look good in the sales particulars. To them, a bridge is just a way of getting to their development. If they have trouble from the pen-pushers in the planning department, they just hint that they will appeal. Residents cannot appeal a planning decision, so the planning jobsworths put up a token resistance, win a few token changes, and then give way to the developers.
The Chairman of the Planning Committee was a woman who combined a domineering manner and vulgar tastes in equal measure, and used the former to impose the latter on Oxford over many years. Even her committee, however, described Berkeley Homes’ first drawings for the bridge as “brutal” and “the work of an engineer not an architect”. What you see in the photograph is the improvement which the planning committee found acceptable.
Enter a new villain to add to the greedy developer, the aesthetically-blind planning officers and the domineering councillor. The owners of the canal are British Waterways Board, the statutory guardian of the canals and the heir of James Brindley who designed the Oxford Canal for posterity. Their theoretical approach to new bridges was that they must be either “modern, dramatic and striking” or such as to “reflect the scale, style etc of the heritage of the navigation”. What you see in the photographs is what resulted from the combination of these theoretical desiderata and the planning committee’s alleged distaste for the “brutal” first version.
There are obvious constraints in building a bridge for modern traffic which did not confront Brindley. The aesthetic problem here is its mass, even after canal was narrowed to reduce the span and after the planning committee had insisted on railings in place of the original solid parapet. It would have been possible to build a lighter-looking bridge but only if it was built in situ – and British Waterways would not allow the canal to be closed to make this possible.
Let us just go over that again. It would have been possible to build a lighter-weight bridge, but British Waterways would not permit the closure of the canal for a few weeks to allow such a bridge to be built. The result meets none of BW’s design considerations and remains a brutal, engineer’s bridge, where they might have insisted on one which enhanced Brindley’s canal and gave pleasure to generations.
Once this bridge was accepted, Berkeley Homes easily got permission for an identical one a little to the north. The permission for this, like so much else, was predicated on the proposed spine road which was to run along the railway and serve the new school in Aristotle Lane. It was not, in fact, in the power of Oxford City Council to build this road, and it is unlikely ever to be built.
So, we have two hideous bridges on the Oxford canal gateway to Oxford. Berkeley Homes learnt that if they dug their toes in, the planners would whine a little but then roll over to be stroked. The planning councillor went on to use her casting vote as Mayor to dump a vast Islamic palace on the Marston Road against bitter opposition, and to lobby for garish floodlighting in Oxford city centre. Her attitude to democracy is summed up by something she said in August 2002: “The public’s dislike of a planning application doesn’t count and public opposition is not something one can take into account” – a pretty close summary of her views on democracy. Her voters threw her out at the next opportunity.
British Waterways closed down the Castle Mill boatyard to the south of this point, and started ineptly playing property developer there, making so many enemies that they washed their hands of the site and flogged it off to a speculative builder. The developer’s plans for the site owe nothing to the canal heritage and everything to the wish for a quick buck.
As I have said of a tacky development further down the canal, the view would be much enhanced by a nice gallows with a developer and a couple of planning officers swinging from it.
See Rubbish and Graffiti by the Oxford Canal for more on this immediate area