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Oxfordshire Vision 2050 under the spotlight

Oxfordshire Vision 2050 under the spotlight

Daniel Lampard 19 Feb 2019
Article originally featured in Thames Tap.  This month I shall use the half term holiday to take my children to a roadshow on the Oxfordshire Plan 2050. Whilst they may not appreciate it (in both senses of the word) as current, and I hope future, residents of Oxfordshire, they have as much an interest as I do in the development of the county over the next 30 years. They will also be more at home than me in responding to the recognition that the plan ‘will need to provide some flexibility for adaptions to be made as technological advances occur and habits change’ – their proposals for personal cross boundary Lego hover machines may brighten up some of the drier responses that this consultation will elicit. So as preparation for our fun filled family day out here is my summary of the embryonic draft plan and accompanying topic papers:   A good co-operative start Despite the political differences and diversity of urban and rural landscape, the Oxfordshire authorities have led the way nationally with co-operative working through the Oxfordshire Growth Board and subsequent Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal (OHGD) (November 2017) as witnessed most recently at the Cherwell Local Plan examination last week where Oxford City and West Oxfordshire battled away to assist Cherwell.  They have already agreed a Statement of Common Ground (March 2018) on this plan with minimal dispute and regard the OHGD funding as a direct response to their ‘track record of successful joint working in Oxfordshire’.  This means that there can be more optimism about the Oxfordshire 2050 process and progress than there would be in many other areas nationwide. Much to do quickly  The plan process begins tentatively with the intention of ‘starting a conversation and dissecting ‘issues’ and ‘options’ into two separate consultation processes.  With so much to grapple with, and a slow start, the timetable seeking publication of a draft plan in October 2019  and submission of the plan in March 2020 (the latter required by the OHGD) is eye-wateringly tight – and this is at a time when the preceding local plans in Cherwell and South Oxfordshire are still unresolved. Reasons to be cheerful – within reason There is much optimism coursing through the documents reflecting the county’s ‘economic success’.  My children and their classmates are fortunate to be growing up in an area of above average quality of life and educational attainment, reflecting the fact that ‘Oxfordshire has one of the strongest economies in the UK’  being ‘one of only three net contributors to the Treasury’.   This forms a hugely positive starting point for any plan – although as it acknowledges ‘high house prices threaten quality of life and well being’. Furthermore the opportunity for readily available options for new developments is constrained as ‘many parts of the county are protected at national and international level for their nature conservation value’.  In a nutshell this is a clear challenge for all of us in the planning profession to seek to resolve this clear tension and help deliver the necessary solutions.  This process will begin with a novel ‘call for ideas’ rather than the more familiar ‘sites’ requiring fresh thinking from us all. The nuts and bolts – TBC Whilst recognising that it needs to deliver a solution that responds to ‘the number of new market and affordable homes and level of economic growth needed across Oxfordshire’ within a matter months the plan is remarkably coy about the extent of development aspirations.  Housing need will ‘comprehensively test a range of options for growth, informed by the standard methodology, up to date evidence and ongoing engagement with stakeholders’. Similarly economic need ‘is for Oxfordshire to determine (in the light of evidence available)’.  My experience at the Cherwell examination last week suggests that this process could take months of examination time – let alone months of plan preparation time. Not all of this uncertainty is within the control of the Oxfordshire authorities – with a perhaps the largest understatement being that ‘the route of the OxCam Expressway will have implications for . . . shaping the Spatial Strategy of the Oxfordshire Plan’. Where? Where? Where?  Given the uncertainty regarding the key housing and economic inputs, it is unsurprising that little detailed thought has gone into the potential spatial strategy – although the potential options identified would keep my children’s geometry class busy for hours.    It is also unclear -  and I anticipate a source of future tension - that whilst the Oxfordshire Plan will determine the spatial strategy for broad development patterns it ‘will not allocate sites except at the request of the relevant local planning authority’. Perhaps the clearest, and most controversial statement, is the recognition that the plan ‘offers an opportunity to assess the overall Oxford Green Belt strategy’.   

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Released for regeneration: what lies ahead for Reading Prison?
This Monday, Reading Council will decide whether to support proposals to utilise Reading Prison for the development of a new theatre and a range of complementary uses (including enabling development) in accordance with the vision set out by Theatre and Arts Reading (TAR). There are a number of possible outcomes for the site but the final scheme will need to respond to a range of policy aspirations within a viable commercial model. In this blog, Lichfields considers how the preferred masterplan might deliver a suitable mix of uses for the site, and the scale and range of economic benefits that might arise from different development scenarios.   The heritage-led re-use of historic sites can offer an unrivalled richness of regeneration outcomes. Historic England’s recent Risky Business? report (researched and written by Lichfields) illustrates the considerable potential that such sites can have to deliver environmental, social and economic benefits alongside conservation. The study, which focused on successful Heritage at Risk! projects in London, drew on available metrics from project evaluations, planning applications and interviews, and was supplemented with estimates of economic impact using our ‘Evaluate’ tool. The research demonstrates that historic sites can deliver tangible regeneration impacts at the local level, revitalising local landmarks, investing in local services, creating cultural destinations and optimising the use of land. Reading Prison is not ‘at risk’, but it is an incredibly important and sensitive historic site in the town, which has been awaiting a new use since 2014 when the Ministry of Justice announced its closure. It occupies the site of the former Reading Abbey, founded in 1121 and once one of the most important pilgrimage centres in England. The entirety of the prison site is scheduled and of high archaeological potential (Henry I was buried in the Abbey and his remains may still lie within the prison site), and the standing remains of the Abbey which lie adjacent are listed Grade I. The prison building itself was constructed in 1844; it is listed Grade II as an important example of the ‘separate’ system which was established at Pentonville just two years earlier. The gothic design, by Sir George Gilbert Scott and William Moffat, features an attractive central octagon and crenelated north front, and the prison has particular historic value for its association with erstwhile inmate Oscar Wilde. He served two years at the prison between 1895 and 1897, describing his grim experiences afterwards in his poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. The prison is a key part of the Abbey Quarter, a conservation and interpretation initiative focused on the Abbey remains and neighbouring Forbury Gardens (Grade II registered), and the Town Hall and Museum, which aim to deliver a clustered leisure, learning and visitor centre. This part of Reading is experiencing a tourist renaissance, following the reopening of the Abbey last month. The recent meanwhile use of the Prison for the Art Angel installation has been a big splash nationally and shows the site’s potential as a cultural destination. The prison is also a key regeneration opportunity at the heart of Reading. It is allocated within the 2009 Reading Central Area Action Plan as part of the East Side Major Opportunity Area which, amongst other objectives, seeks to provide ‘a more defined urban area than currently exists, of medium to high density’. Policy R3b envisages the site’s regeneration for residential, commercial officers or a hotel. The Council’s 2015 Outline Development Framework for the site, adopted in 2015 as a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD), expands on its heritage and archaeological opportunities and sensitivities, including recognising the scope to remove or replace the unsightly 20th century buildings which surround the listed cruciform building. Drawing on our experience in producing the Risky Business? report for Historic England, and in securing conversion and reuse of historic prisons at Gloucester and Portsmouth, we thought it would be interesting to consider how the site might come forward in accordance with the SPD, and to establish the type and broad scale of economic benefits that different masterplan scenarios could deliver. Whilst these scenarios have not yet been viability-tested or subject to a detailed consideration of archaeological and other constraints of the site, we established three options to test different intensities of development all three scenarios aimed at delivering the following objectives: A masterplan (massing and layout) which ensures that Scott’s prison remains the architectural centrepiece of the scheme Preservation of key views to the octagon and north front; building heights broadly following that established by the existing prison walls (approximately 3 storeys) Removal or redevelopment of unsightly C20th buildings which detract from the prison’s setting Improved permeability into the site, which is currently encircled by prison walls Activation along the River Kennet to the south and creation of new public space   Scenario 1. Mixed use This scheme seeks to optimise the mix of uses within the site, with the prison itself becoming a hotel (38 bedrooms based on the precedent established at Oxford, albeit this may be a conservative estimate as Reading is larger), and the surrounding blocks redeveloped for a total of 7100sqm commercial floorspace, 500sqm community space and 93 dwellings. The scheme envisages 2850sqm office space in two 3 storey blocks framing views into the north and east of the site, with taller blocks to the south (3-5 storeys) containing 6500sqm residential and 3367sqm commercial (restaurants and bars) opening out onto the banks of the river. We calculate that this option, on occupation, could generate £3.6m of resident expenditure per annum, 578 FTE jobs, and £45.7m direct GVA per annum. See larger version Scenario 1: masterplan layout and associated economic impact [N.B. all figures are indicative, based on an illustrative scheme mix]   Scenario 2. Scaled-back office/hotel This scheme proposes 4,800sqm of commercial floorspace alongside the 38 bedroom hotel, with development located in the eastern part of the site, allowing generous public space to be provided across the western part of the site where it engages with the abbey ruins. A three-storey northern block would comprise 2100sqm office space, with office and commercial uses accommodated at the south-eastern part of the site, supporting vibrancy along the river and events within the public space adjacent. Our economic analysis indicates that, on occupation, this could deliver 414 direct FTE jobs during operation, and £36.3m direct GVA per annum. See larger version Scenario 2: scaled back office space, hotel and more generous public space, together with economic impact [N.B. all figures are indicative, based on an illustrative scheme mix] Scenario 3. Arts/commercial The third scenario envisages the prison in use as a c1,800sqm gallery or arts venue, supported commercially by a 2,400sqm 50 bedroom hotel in the south-eastern corner of the site, with a ground floor bar/restaurant space. The northern part of the site would provide a large green space associated with the gallery. This scenario could generate 80 direct FTE jobs during operation and £2.8m direct GVA per annum. See larger version Scenario 3: Arts and commercial scheme, together with estimate economic impact [N.B. all figures are indicative, based on an illustrative scheme mix] These three options show how much the site has to offer – both as a potential cultural anchor to the Abbey Quarter, but also as a vibrant commercial and mixed use hub. The site and its heritage present a huge opportunity to create a unique destination in the heart of Reading, with new uses having the potential to provide a striking new life and setting for an iconic, if infamous Victorian prison. Get in touch with the authors Daniel Lampard, Senior Director and Head of Thames Valley office Ciaran Gunne-Jones, Senior Director and Head of Economics Nick Bishop, Senior Heritage Consultant Colin Pullan, Urban Design Director Layla Vidal-Martin, Planner  

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