North-East Area Forum

Partly because I live in Headington and partly just out of curiosity I went to the North-east Area Forum yesterday. It was the third such meeting organised by Oxford City Council under the new arrangements for planning consultation, replacing Area Committees: there are 5 scheduled during June and July to cover the whole of the City.
The purpose of the whole event was to consult on the Council’s preferred options for the various sites identified earlier this year for possible housing or other development. I arrived around 6.20 in the middle of a half-hour open meeting before the start of formal business. The north-east area had been split into three parts with a table assigned to each. On the tables were maps and documents identifying the sites and the options. A general display covered other policy objectives which are being developed, on which people could vote using coloured stickers.
By 6.30 there were just over 50 people in the room, including several Councillors, the City’s Chief Finance Officer (hope I got her job title right) and a number of Planning Officers, leaving about 40 members of the public. We were invited to sit at the table for the area in which we were interested. So many went to the Headington & Barton table the group was split in two. A Planning Officer was assigned to each group to join in the discussion and take notes. I joined one of the split groups.
To start proceedings our Planning Officer explained that the purpose of the Preferred Options exercise is to ‘allocate’ sites for specific types of development. This way specific planning criteria can be applied if and when planning applications are submitted. If sites are ‘unallocated’ only general planning considerations apply which could lead to less desirable development being allowed.
After a slightly hesitant start while people were unsure how to start a good discussion got going. By far the most time was spent on the proposal to build housing on the Headington car park site, with parking being retained below the raised buildings – known as ‘undercroft’ parking. It would be fair to say that just about everyone was against the idea, although one speaker (OK, it was me) did say that if the planners could come up with one or two real examples of where this kind of development had been done successfully he wouldn’t be against the idea. I’m sure I heard at least half a murmur of agreement.
I don’t intend to write the minutes of the meeting so I’ll just pick out a few other matters we discussed:
  • HMOs – a problem 
  • A possible ‘hotel’ at the JR for people visiting patients – no support
  • Traffic problems in Headington – bad and can only get worse
  • Ruskin Fields – hardly discussed for lack of time but no-one liked the idea
  • Garden grabbing – the City Council is trying to develop a policy
At 7.30 the discussions closed and Cllr Roy Darke invited each group to report back – this was done by the Planning Officers. I don’t mean this at all critically when I say that little new emerged. People’s views on the various issues are already quite well-aired through earlier consultations, the local paper and so on. One political issue was teased out, however, in connection with the residential care home Townsend House near Headington Roundabout. Government and County policy is to concentrate residential care in larger centres when it cannot be provided at home. On the other hand the City Council and, according to those at the meeting, the general public believe the elderly and infirm should be housed and cared for within their local communities, close to their friends and families.
I think this was a useful exercise. It was a risky thing for the Council to do – they must have had some worries that it could degenerate into a slanging match or an anti-development tirade. I was impressed that around 7.00 discussions at the four tables was in full swing and there was an air of constructive working in the room. I hope people came away feeling they had been given a good chance to have their say as well as to question the Councillors and planners.
The consultation period is open until 22 July – you can comment via the Council’s website if you haven’t done so already. You can also read Cllr Ruth Wilkinson’s summary of the evening on her web page.