Westgate inquiry under way

THE success of a "golden opportunity" to revamp Oxford's crumbling Westgate Centre now hinges on the outcome of a two-week public inquiry.

The hearing, which started yesterday, has been called over compulsory purchase orders to buy land surrounding the mall.

During the opening of the inquiry at the Town Hall yesterday, it was said a "golden opportunity" to revamp the city's shopping quarter would be lost if planners failed to buy 12 acres of land, including part of Oxford and Cherwell Valley College and sheltered housing at Abbey Place.

David Elvin QC, representing Capital Shopping Centres, said: "There is a compelling case for acquisition in the public interest.

"The redevelopment and extension of the Westgate Centre, which it embodies, has been sought for the last 20 years and will provide much-needed regeneration for this part of the city centre.

"At a city-wide level, Oxford would miss a golden opportunity to fulfil the goal of improving the quality and extending the existing retail offer in the city."

One of the most controversial aspects of the redevelopment is the proposed demolition of Abbey Place, a city council-run sheltered housing block in which Vincent McKeown lives. Mr McKeown, who can only communicate by blinking, has become the face of opposition to the Westgate development by his refusal to leave his home.

Last night, the city council confirmed it had tabled another offer of alternative accommodation to Mr McKeown and was awaiting a response.

The inquiry is expected to last until Christmas and a catalogue of witnesses is due to appear, including city council environment director Sharon Cosgrove and Michael Crofton-Briggs, chief planner.

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