Emily Smith’s speech to Scrutiny on Botley SPD

Emily Smith, presentation to Scrutiny Committee about Botley SPD on 22nd Oct 2015

Good evening Committee. I would like to talk to you about two of the concerns I have in relation to the SPD for Botley Centre. In a moment I am going to talk about height and scale, but first I would like to raise my concerns about the consultation process.

Consultation Process

It is my understanding that when there is a significant consultation on planning policy the Corporate Communications team can be involved at an early stage to ensure a well-planned and high quality consultation. Meaningful consultation is difficult. It requires clear explanation of the information being discussed and carefully worded questions to ensure reliable responses are gathered. However, this consultation missed key questions, such as ‘what should the maximum building height on the site be?’ and residents described to me feeling ‘manipulated’ by the online form asking questions in a way that were difficult not to agree with.

The consultation report in your pack, states that residents aged over 60 are ‘over represented’ among the respondents. But clearly there are lots of young professionals, children and teenagers living in Botley so why were engagement events for these groups not planned from the outset. In the end communications staff from corporate strategy and planning struggled to get groups of younger people together because the bulk of the consultation period clashed with the school summer holiday. They did squeeze a few groups in at the end, but if this had been planned earlier more could have been done and the number of meaningful responses from young people could have been higher. AND all this was going on at the same time as the Local Plan Examination in Public so Officers were difficult to get hold of during the consultation period when we had queries. To me, it all felt very rushed.

Having spoken briefly to officers it is my understanding that the Communications team had limited involvement and their recommended changes to the consultation questions were not all taken into account.

Perhaps committee could ask the Planning Policy team to explain who led on the consultation design and delivery and what the involvement of the communications team was? Did Planning Policy involve the ‘consultation experts’ from the beginning?  And why was the timing of a consultation on a clearly complicated and controversial document not more carefully thought through?

Maximum Height

Height and scale was one of the main reasons the previous application by Doric was rejected by the Planning Committee. As I have already mentioned, there wasn’t a question in the consultation about maximum building height, but the comments by residents and organisations, including Oxford City Council, clearly show a strong objection to the SPD enabling another planning application as large as the failed Doric proposal for this site. So why has the maximum height not been reduced in the final version of the Botley SPD?

Allowing 8 storey buildings in a residential suburb is also contrary to existing Vale planning policies, for example:

  • The adopted Local Plan policy H10 and S12 which says that development of any type must not harm the character or appearance of the area.
  • The emerging Local Plan states the same and specifically talks about West Way, Arthray Road and Westminster Way in Central Botley.
  • Section 5 of the Vale’s Design Guide states that “the scale of buildings should relate to their context” and 5.1.2 explains that urban areas of the district range from 2 to 4 storeys – which is clearly true of Botley. A Character Assessment describes roads opposite the SPD Site as ‘villagey’ and confirms that “Botley is a low level suburb that rarely rises above the level of 2 storeys”

So, again, why does the SPD allow buildings of 8 storeys when other Vale polices would only deem 4 storeys appropriate? Why the inconsistency? Are there any other local service centres with 8 storey buildings in the Vale? I am not aware of any.

I understand that whatever development happens in Botley it needs to be financially viable, for the developers and also for residents who don’t want to be left with a collection of empty retail units. However, some members of the community I represent perceive that the SPD allowing 8 storey buildings is being driven by the price the Vale are selling the land for. Clearly, if the land cost £1 to buy, viability would be easier to achieve with fewer commercial outlets on the site. The higher the cost of land, it follows that developers will need to cram more on to the site to draw customers in from places like Abingdon to make a profit.

BUT, an SPD is a planning policy document, so surely its adoption should be determined by planning considerations. This SPD should be about what is appropriate development for a local service centre in residential area, and ensuring that local people are not harmed by any planning applications that come forward.

So, what is driving the need for 8 storey buildings? How can the residents I represent, be sure that this SPD has not been influenced by the price that the Vale are selling the land for? And why, having read the consultation responses, have planning policy not reduced the maximum building height allowed in section 4.4?

In my view, the adopted Local Plan, under which this SPD will sit, is clear. Buildings in central Botley should be no more than 4 or 5 storeys high.

Committee members, please will you consider referring the SPD back to planning, so they can amend section 4.4 to bring the maximum building height of our local service centre in line with the adopted Local Plan, the emerging Local Plan, and the Vale’s Design Guide?

Thank you for listening.