The Battle of Bonn Square has given way to the War of Westgate, as protesters promise to keep fighting the development to the end. As one who has long predicted a civil uprising in Oxford, I am on their side.
I am not, I have to say, a natural ally of fluffy-headed Greens or unwashed tree-campers, nor would I dream of arguing that the present Westgate and its hinterland are worth preserving. But they are as ghastly as they are because an earlier generation of city planners and city councillors made exactly the same mistakes as this lot are about to make, and with the same uncaring ignorance of aesthetics, unthinking servility towards big business, and unwarranted contempt for democracy.
The present Westgate was opened by the Queen a couple of weeks after I first came up to Oxford as an undergraduate in 1973. The old residential area of St Ebbe’s and the mixed residential and industrial area known as Oxpens had been bought up and swept away by Oxford City Council and its population dumped in Blackbird Leys. Let me say at once that no-one can seriously argue against the idea that this area had to be redeveloped and that a civic authority was best-placed to do that. Not by these people, however, and not in the way they did it.
Oxpens was tackled by first laying out the roads on the newly-levelled riverside. The highways officers were cut from the same mould as their modern-day successors at Oxfordshire County Council – deeply stupid, immune from any awareness of an aesthetic element in their role, convinced that cities were the servant of the roads, not vice versa – and utterly incapable of designing a workable traffic flow, even where, as here, they had a clean sheet of paper. The area remained a waste-land for years with no plans made for it. The biggest single attribute – the river frontage – was blocked off by some shoddy flats, and the whole enormous potential of this vast acreage was utterly wasted. That same generation of planners also sterilised the inner end of the Cowley Road by announcing – but then not following through – large-scale redevelopment plans, a direct cause of the decline of that area as well.
God knows what Her Majesty thought as she cut the ribbon or smashed the bottle or did whatever you do to declare a shopping centre open. Westgate did not impinge on me as a neighbour living off the High – I have no recollection of setting foot in it, though I do remember the soul-less car-park and the part-built hotel which stood abandoned for several years by Folly Bridge. I do clearly recall, however, my first sight of it from a distance. I drove up to Boars Hill, and looked back at what still looked like a medieval city from that distance – but with that enormous and hideous bulk overshadowing it. Then, as now, the city planning officers had no concept of scale or proportion, and not the least interest in how a building would translate from its drawn elevations into brick and glass.
“Planning officer” is a kind of oxymoron – it isn’t actually, as every grammarian in Oxford will hasten to point out, but I couldn’t resist putting “Ox-“, “moron” and “planning officer” into the same sentence. An oxymoron (sharp/dull in Greek) is an expression which contains contradictory terms within it. What I mean is that both parts of the expression are inappropriate to describe the dull little men whose tastes and decisions shape our city.
There is no element of planning in their work. They are wholly reactive, shuffling paper from one side of their desks to the other, rubber-stamping developments which tick enough boxes and rejecting those which do not. As with their predecessors who made Westgate and Oxpens what it is today, there is no overview, no vision of a city which its residents, businesses and visitors will be proud of, no aesthetic feeling at all. And as for these spineless little creatures being called “officers”….
And so we get Westgate 2, hideous to look at, and unwanted, in this form at least, by most of Oxford’s residents. “It will benefit the city” cries the unthinking rabble whom we have elected to represent us. Really? Who exactly in the city will it benefit? Me? – I go to Bicester or London if I want to shop, defeated by Oxford’s hostility to cars. Some existing local business? – name me one who will be better off. A homeless family? – but there are few homes in this development. You, councillor? – perhaps we had better not ask.
No, the chief beneficiaries will be the developers and most of the money will leave the city. Oxford, as landlord, will receive capital, rental and business tax, but there will be substantial outgoings and anyway, Oxford’s and Oxfordshire’s ability to piss money up against the wall is legendary. Oxford with money will be like a drunk on pay day – hideous and hideously expensive benches in Cornmarket anyone? £5 million to resurface Cornmarket? £50,000 to put down and immediately take up the Aristotle Lane skate-park? Give it to the highways officers, perhaps, for lots of signs, lines, barriers, and other ugly and unnecessary road-works. Let’s have some more Equalities Officers, Health and Safety Advisers and Outreach Co-ordinators.
I doubt very much that we will get back a few of the public lavatories and the care homes, those soft targets for closure when the city or county have over-spent elsewhere. In fact, we are not even going to get a proper public transport hub out of it. The developers will not give up their rental space. The planners couldn’t plan a Chinese takeaway. And the highways officers think that their job is to **** the traffic up not make it flow.
We are about to see a repeat of the planning disasters of the 1960s and 1970s. The creators of other cyclical disasters at least have the excuse that time heals the wounds of the last – the material evidence of flood or recession fades. Here, the evidence of the last Westgate planning disaster, the legacy of dim, dull, plodding planners, remains for all to see; the history of botched transport initiatives by stupid people is with us every day. And we are going to do it all again.
I wish the protesters well, but I will not be joining them in person in their campaign of disruption. I don’t want to be beaten up by thuggish policemen, nor share a Black Maria with people I wouldn’t be seen dead with in any more conventional social context.
I think perhaps I might if we were losing anything tangible of value. Apart from the Bonn Square trees (on which I write separately) no-one will mourn what is due to be demolished. What is being wasted here is an opportunity to make something of this corner of the city – a second opportunity in my time. It is being wasted by incapable planners and supine counsellors, the dim, unfocused, over-active, undemocratic little people to whom we have surrendered our world.