W hatever happens in the Sheldonian Theatre on Tuesday when dons debate the future of the Castle Mill blocks, it is unlikely that Oxford University will emerge with its reputation much enhanced.

In advance of the debate, both sides have accused their opponents of “scare tactics”. The dons wishing to see the accommodation blocks reduced in height throw scorn on the £30m figure that the university repeatedly puts forward as the estimated cost of the work.

It is a figure, they say, to frighten even those who hate the eyesore buildings into accepting that what has been done on the edge of the Port Meadow cannot be undone — at least not without hitting the university very hard in the coffers.

Then there are the claims that the loss of the accommodation would add “considerable pressure” to the crowded rental market — though in all seriousness it is difficult to imagine how the loss of 38 bedrooms would massively impact on the housing market, given that Oxford’s private housing market currently provides for well in excess of 6,000 students.

On the other side, university estates officers this week are particularly incensed at online claims that the accommodation was built on a site so contaminated that students’ health is being put at risk.
Reducing the height of the buildings would be enormously disruptive for students living there, they say and according the university’s vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton: “No university, not even one as beautiful as Oxford, should put buildings before its students” — although many in the city would certainly put historic views and grade I listed buildings far ahead of student comforts and university expansion plans.

As to the cost, the vice-chancellor says it amounts to money that could otherwise endow some 25 junior research fellowships or eight professorships in perpetuity.

But both sides will be united on Tuesday on one thing — they will both argue that Oxford University’s reputation would be damaged by the wrong decision.

Oxford University claims millions could be lost, with potential donors turning their back on a university prepared to waste millions on knocking down part of its own accommodation blocks. Prof Diarmaid MacCulloch and his supporters, however, say the environmental damage that the university has inflicted on the city is a cause of lasting shame and putting it right is the only honourable course.

The fact that the issue has gone to the university parliament is very welcome.
But one way or another — financially for Oxford University or environmentally for the city — Castle Mill is going to be a very costly mistake, whichever way dons vote.
The difference is that one cost remains an estimate, the other is all too clear for anyone who ventures on to Port Meadow.