Baniots: build absolutely nothing in Oxford… try Swindon

Building something new in Britain always meets resistance. That even applies to organisations which put their cities on the map, such as the University of Oxford, its new library buildings and student accommodation.

First published on Beacon.

Groups of police are not an everyday sight at Oxford’s railway station, but they have been known to put in an appearance to meet Swindon Town’s fans. Trouble is not unknown when the Wiltshire football team travel 25 miles north-east to play Oxford United. Oxford and Swindon are a similar size, both being home to between 150,000 and 200,000 people, but otherwise have little in common. Oxford is synonymous with Britain’s oldest university, which dates from the 12th century. Swindon was built on canals and railways in the 19th century, and even its most ardent fans would admit it is not as aesthetically blessed as Oxford.

But despite the footballing rivalry and the differences in dignity, Swindon has an academic library that dwarfs those of Oxford. Its £26m Book Storage Facility holds more than seven million items in a state of the art building opened in 2010, where staff on cherry-pickers travel up and down 31 narrow aisles to retrieve items from 153 miles of shelving, configured in 36 foot-high units.

This is not because the University of Oxford has been neglecting its libraries; quite the opposite. Swindon’s Book Storage Facility stores the vast majority of the Bodleian Library – the central library of the University of Oxford. The reason it is 25 miles away tells you volumes about the planning sclerosis that affects many places in Britain. Oxford has it worse than most.

The centre of Oxford is, without doubt, a thing of beauty. It is also hemmed in by the Thames and the Cherwell rivers and their flood plains, limiting development. But it is also hemmed in by an invisible barrier: the Green Belt.

The UK’s Green Belts are rings of land, defined just before and after the Second World War, on which building is generally forbidden. Most of England’s big cities have green belts, and altogether they cover 13% of England, with the result that the country has little urban sprawl. Cities may no longer have walls around them, but in Britain they tend to stop suddenly as if they did.

This can put enormous pressure on the cities within the belts, particularly if they are small and economically successful. Oxford is both, and has little space for new buildings. And even when space can be found, a builder has to win planning permission.

The Bodleian, by law, receives a copy of every book published in the British Isles, and buys many more globally. It had run out of space in its main buildings in central Oxford, including the Radcliffe Camera in the top picture – the kind of library one might imagine God considering a little too showy. The library had been using various stopgaps, including purpose-built storage buildings in the grounds of an 18th century manor house in the Oxfordshire village of Nuneham Courtney – built by a courtier of George III, now run as a meditation centre by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University – and disused salt mines under Cheshire, the latter more than 100 miles away.

The salt mines have given up their contents, and the grounds of Nuneham House are safe for meditators; just over two years ago, the Bodleian shelved the seven millionth item in the Book Storage Facility. This has allowed the Bodleian to empty, gut and renovate one of its main buildings in central Oxford, which will reopen later this year. This corporate video shows both the Swindon facility in action, and the plans for the renovated building.

Video: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Given the constraints of its central site the Bodleian has long intended to build a warehouse for its less-read items, to be brought in by van as requested. But it expected to build that facility somewhere in Oxford, not 25 miles away. Despite its choice of a site on a workaday business park in the west of the city, and a building that was about as low-profile as a big metal box can be, the city council – under pressure from local residents – refused it planning permission. And so Oxford’s library is, largely, in Swindon.

While the university can get away with sending its books out of the county, students generally want to live in Oxford itself. Last autumn, the university opened 439 new graduate student rooms on Roger Dudman Way, literally on the wrong side of the train tracks and right next to them – the picture below was taken from the train. The five-storey Castle Mill buildings appear fairly inoffensive to your correspondent, and gained planning permission from the city.

Tall storeys: new Castle Mill student flats in Oxford, the source of local fury
Tall storeys: new Castle Mill student flats in Oxford, the source of local fury

But they are also next to Port Meadow, a giant area of ancient, open common land bisected by the Thames. The fact that the new buildings are visible from the meadow – as are quite a lot of other buildings, some handsome, some not – has led to months of fury from Oxford residents. They have alleged malpractice by city officials and demanded that the university lop a couple of storeys off the finished buildings, or for the city to make it do so.

The university is a powerful organisation, without which Oxford would probably be about as well-known as Swindon. There is a pretty strong national interest in favour of letting it develop and expand. This is not only about prestige, but solid economic benefits: from foreign students’ fees and spending to the numerous businesses spun off by the university over the years.

But as Swindon’s Book Storage Facility demonstrates, the university doesn’t always get its way, and even when it does Oxford residents may not accept it. So why do many hate development so much?

One reason is that anyone choosing to live in Oxford was probably dreaming of its spires and other pretty, old buildings when they did so; if you cherish the old, you are unlikely to welcome the new. A related reason is that the university’s staff, who might be expected to support its developments, tend to live outside Oxford – some through choice, but often because housing in Oxford is often too expensive for academic salaries. The average property sells for £340,000 ($568,000), more than 11 times local earnings, the highest ratio of any British city according to Lloyds bank. The surrounding towns are better value.

While many of the university’s staff commute to Oxford, many Oxford residents commute to London: it may be 52 miles from the centre of one to the other, but the excellent train and coach links can make this a quicker journey than one from some parts of outer London. With excellent arts and decent restaurants – and the glamour of the university – Oxford is effectively one of London’s swisher suburbs.

Another reason is those high house prices. Most Britons invest in shares through highly diversified mutual funds and pensions, and have little idea of which businesses they partly own. When it comes to property, however, a home owner takes what is often a highly-leveraged bet on the desirability of just one neighbourhood. Anything that could affect an area’s property prices is likely to meet opposition, for the understandable if ignoble reason that it can seriously damage people’s wealth.

There is an acronym in planning, spotted as early as 1991 in Australia, that sums up the difficulty of developments in comfortable places: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone, or ‘banana’. Sometimes, it seems that in development terms Britain is a banana republic – well, a banana constitutional monarchy.

In fact, it varies from place to place: Oxford has an extreme case of the Baniots, Swindon rather less so. This isn’t all bad; Oxford is a beautiful place, surrounded by some beautiful countryside rather than urban sprawl. And the aversion to development has some noble roots, including Britain’s romantic attachment to the countryside combined with the scarring experience of both the Second World War and the modernist buildings built after it, in some cases in the holes left by Nazi bombs. (Buildings more than a century old are generally preserved in the same way as open countryside.)

But sometimes, the preference not to develop really gets in the way. Oxford’s already good train service is about to get better, with a second route to London opening in 2015, almost entirely over existing track (although the work is still costing £130m). The line, apparently the first between London and another major city for 100 years, should also allow new services to Milton Keynes and Bedford, on the route of the ‘varsity line’ that once linked Oxford to Cambridge.

You might think no-one would oppose the extension of a relatively environmentally-friendly form of public transport on existing track. But residents of Wolvercote, on the northern edge of the city, complained that “it amounts to a steel motorway just 10 metres from a school and people’s homes”. The train line already runs past Wolvercote; this scheme will just mean they go faster.

But it wasn’t that which threatened to stop the scheme in its, er, tracks. Instead, the developer Chiltern Railways was initially refused permission because an already in-use tunnel at Wolvercote was home to various species of bats. The faster trains would disturb them.

This story has a happy ending for almost everyone, including train users and bats. After the involvement of the transport secretary, Chiltern was allowed to proceed as long as it installed a special lighting system, which will convince the bats to vacate the tunnel before trains arrive.

But as an example of the extreme resistance to development in parts of Britain including Oxford, it’s hard to bat away.