Panel is set up in wake of Port Meadow furore

The Oxford Times: Nicky Moeran Nicky Moeran

A DESIGN panel of national planning and heritage experts will be set up to avoid controversies such as the Castle Mill development, Oxford City Council has said.

Oxford City Council has said it will spend £75,000 to create the panel to examine future large schemes before planning applications are submitted.

It will also be made up of individuals with recognised local expertise, all independent of the Town Hall.

This comes as the city council is cleared of malpractice by an independent review into how Oxford University secured consent for student blocks on the edge of Port Meadow.

The preliminary report into Oxford’s most controversial planning decision for decades finds that the council fulfilled its statutory duties.

The review follows claims that an overly close relationship with the university had allowed eight student blocks to be built on contaminated land, ruining historic views from Port Meadow, with warnings from a heritage officer not passed on to councillors making the decision on whether to approve the project.

But while the Town Hall is exonerated of any wrongdoing and misconduct, the review calls for changes in the way major developments are dealt with by the city council and the university in the future.

A whole series of recommendations are made by Vincent Goodstadt, the planning expert appointed by the city council to head the review.

Peter Sloman, chief executive of the city council, said he recognised that the review judged the officers’ report on Castle Mill to members of the planning committee that passed the scheme could have been clearer.

He added: “I agree with the report that, with the benefit of hindsight, the council and other organisations could have done more in this particular case.

“I also accept the report’s recommendations for improving aspects of the service. I am pleased that the report acknowledges that improvements are already under way and the service is committed to learning from experience.

”In particular we want to expand the scope and effectiveness of our consultation arrangements.”

But Nicky Moeran, of the Save Port Meadow group, said “We are deeply suspicious that the city council is making statements about the first draft of a report that, understandably enough, contained a huge number of incomplete, missing or contested details and conclusions.

“There was a clearly agreed timeline for producing a final report that has been cast aside.’’ She said members of the working group created to oversee the review would be pressing hard for the final version of the report to reach a more damning conclusion. She said: “Oxford City Council should be ashamed of itself and apologise to the working group members who have volunteered to give the final report credibility and ensure this doesn't happen again.”

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