Energy Project SUQs, say residents

After the first public meeting about the Energy Project there are many Still Unanswered Questions.


The first public meeting on the Hospital Energy Project happened on Wednesday evening this week. By my reckoning about 85 people were there (another estimate is over 100) to listen and put questions to a panel of five representatives from the OUH NHS Trust and Vital Energi. It was a generally courteous affair without any shouting or open displays of anger, frustration or aggression!

“I hope you can hear me. We’ve never done anything like this before”, said one of the Trust’s team. And that seems to be the big problem with this project. To their credit the panel’s presentation started with an unqualified apology for the mishandling of communications. It seems that although the Trust employs several people in their communications department, none of them have been involved in the project. The contact points announced at the press briefing last week hadn’t been working because the Trust was still trying to recruit someone to be the project’s full-time communications person. In the meantime the engineering team were having to do their best.

The other organisation that comes badly out of this is the County Council, who schedule and approve the road closures. Although Oxford has seen the reconfiguring of the London Road, Frideswide Square, The Plain and all those roundabouts in recent years, the Hospital Energy Project is the biggest scheme of its kind in residential streets in a generation. The staff in their Highways Department can have no experience or competence in assessing a scheme like this, and it shows in the many unanswered questions that came out in the meeting.

The same goes for the contractors Vital Energi. One of their people told me after the meeting that although they had done several big projects with hospitals and others, this is the first they’ve done which involves laying pipes through so many residential streets. Embarrassingly, their main spokesman didn’t know the streets let alone the side streets and developments, care and residential homes which front onto their pipeline. As someone suggested, they need to get out and walk the streets with some local residents.

But anyway, what did we learn, and what is still to be sorted out? I won’t repeat the details about the project – you can catch up here if you’re new to all this.

  • There have been some changes to the road closure schedule. I haven’t got the full picture but I’ll post it here as soon as I get it.
  • There will be a Liaison Group set up with local residents and the project team. Its job will be to sort out problems as – or hopefully before – they arise.
  • The London Road will have traffic lights and one-way traffic while the work goes on there (last week we were told it would only be briefly).
  • London Road and Old Road won’t have traffic lights at the same time.
  • Access to side roads like Beech Road will be maintained at all times.
  • The contractors will work from 8:00am to 5:30pm Monday to Friday, except when they are working on London Road and Old Road; these will be worked 7 days a week. If the work falls behind schedule work may be carried out at the weekend to avoid over-running the road closures.
  • When roads are closed there will be a security guard on duty 24/7 to let emergency vehicles, big deliveries, etc. through.
  • There won’t be any parking on the road when the work is being done.
  • People who normally park in their drive will have to park elsewhere because they won’t have access to their drives.
  • Pavements (‘footways’) will be open throughout.
  • There will be no special provision for cyclists. They will either have to use another route, or push their bikes along the pavement.
  • Mobility scooters will be able to use the pavement at all times.
  • The contractors are legally bound to protect trees and verges. Some damage may occur but it must be made good.
  • In the longer roads (Sandfield, Latimer, Stapleton) there will be a safe pick up/drop off space for anyone with a disability to get close to their house.
  • Bin collection days won’t change. Bins left at the property edge as usual will be collected and moved to the end of the closed section, and returned after emptying. The city council has arranged to change their routes so that the closed roads are served first.

All well and good, but the closer we get the more unanswered questions there are.

  • Q: I need my car. Where can I park? A: We don’t know. You’ll have to do the best you can.
  • Q: I pay for a permit to park on the street. Will I get a refund? A: We don’t know, but we’ll try asking.
  • Q: My parking permit’s for a particular zone. Will I be able to use it in another zone? A: Not at the moment, but we’ll try asking.
  • Q: Will parking on double yellow lines be allowed? A: We don’t know, but we’ll try asking.
  • Q: I told my car insurance company I park on my drive overnight, but I’ll have to park on the street. Do I have to tell my insurers? What if they charge me more – will you compensate me? A: We don’t know but we’ll try to find out.
  • Q: How will people get to know about the work and how it will affect them? A: We’re not sure yet. There will be leaflets.
  • Q: I’ve got building work scheduled while my road is closed. Will it be able to go ahead? A: We can let deliveries through but workmen won’t be able to park at your property. [So that’s a ‘no’ then, and the compensation question arises again.]
  • Q: If an emergency vehicle or a carer’s car needs to get to a property, how long will it take for them to get access? A: We don’t know. It depends.
  • Q: I get £5 a day from letting out parking space in my drive. Will you compensate my loss of income? A: No. [OK, not strictly an SUQ but worth noting anyway.]

If, and it’s a big if, most of these questions can be resolved before the work starts at the beginning of January that will be good, even if the answers aren’t what people want to hear.

One final thought. I fear the contractors may have seriously underestimated the volume of traffic needing access to properties blocked by their trenches. I don’t have any figures, but just looking out of my window on a similar street I see workmen’s vans, online supermarket shopping and other deliveries, cleaners, carers and others passing at a rate of several an hour during the working day. This would mean a considerable disruption to the work – something Vital might want to look at more closely.

Footnote: Other reports of the meeting – Oxford Times | Local Councillors