IT HAS been in the pipeline for 25 years and tonight could finally see the redevelopment of the Westgate Centre win approval.
There have been three previous attempts to transform the centre but the Westgate Alliance is now hoping that its plans – costing £400m – will be agreed by Oxford City Council this evening.
If given planning permission, it will pave the way for work to start on the development at the end of this year with the new centre to open in 2017.
The birth of the current Westgate Centre required the demolition of a large part of the city centre called St Ebbe’s.
But by the time of its demolition in the 1960s, St Ebbe’s had developed something of a shabby reputation and its demolition was not particularly controversial.
An Act of Parliament in 1818 allowed a gasworks to open in the district, the smell of which made St Ebbe’s one of the most unpleasant places to live in Oxford.
Shops like John Lewis could bring £230m into the city’s economy
In 1848, a survey reported that some of the alleys and yards off Church Street, now long buried under the Westgate Centre, showed “a degree of neglect and filth rarely witnessed” and the area also suffered from an outbreak of cholera.
Eventually, it was decided to solve the problem once and for all, and Oxford City Council began a programme of slum clearance, moving the people of St Ebbe’s to the south of the city and demolishing the empty buildings.
Like lingering ghosts, only Turn Again Lane and St Ebbe’s Street remain to give an idea of the district which the Westgate Centre replaced.
The £1.8m centre was built on the site of Church Street, Charles Street and Pensons Gardens.
Designed by the city architect Douglas Murray, with the Queen visiting the site in 1968, the centre opened in 1972 complete with a large Selfridges and a Sainsbury’s.
Selfridges formed part of the Westgate Centre when it was built in 1972 but closed some years ago
The city council sold the centre to Arrowcroft, the firm which constructed the Clarendon Centre, for £11.5m in 1986 and only two years later the company put forward the first of a number of redevelopment proposals.
It would have involved spending £100m to expand the centre over the current car park, which would then be replaced underneath the extension.
But the scheme was eventually jettisoned by the city council in 1989 after opposition from the people who lived around the centre.
The proposals came back again in 1999, this time with plans to spend £220m. Both the city council and developer Capital Shopping Centres were on board and it was hoped the centre would be open in 2006.
But Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott threw out the proposals after a planning inquiry because he believed it would have spoiled the historic heart of the city.
It was not until 2006 that the plans came back again.
Various schemes have been put forward to rejuvenate the centre but failed to come to fruition
This time Capital Shopping Centres’s plans cost £300m and the scheme was actually given planning permission.
However, like many projects, the Westgate fell victim to the economic downturn of the period.
Work was supposed to start in January 2008, but instead the scheme was put on hold.
In 2010, the shopping centre was sold by Capital Shopping Centres to the Crown Estate, which formed the Westgate Alliance with Land Securities Group, and the two companies are now hoping to bring to an end Oxford’s wait for its new shopping centre. A decision on the planning application will be made at a public meeting held tonight at the Town Hall, St Aldate’s at 6.30pm.
‘Scheme will boost economy and create jobs’
According to Oxford City Council’s predictions, the redevelopment will bring £230m into the city’s economy from nearby towns such as Reading and Milton Keynes.
The council has highlighted the fact that in an independent ranking of the UK’s shopping centres, Oxford is down in 42nd place, behind Bromley, Plymouth and Livingston, in Scotland. The city only just finished ahead of Solihull, Romford and Watford.
As well as bringing in cold, hard cash, the scheme is expected to create 3,400 full-time jobs.
The report which the council’s planning officers have drawn up, recommending the development for approval, says: “At a time when Oxford is emerging from a recessionary period in the national economy, and has secured City Deal funding for infrastructure and other initiatives, there are powerful arguments to suggest that the public benefits to derive from the development outweigh any potential negative impacts.”
Oxfordshire County Council, the highways authority, has given its backing to the proposals and is preparing to fully pedestrianise Queen Street following a request from the developers.
The county council is set to benefit from about £4m of funding which the developers will stump up by way of contributions to the local area to mitigate against the impact of the development.
Oxford’s park-and-ride system, new cycling facilities and streets in the area such as Oxpens Road will all benefit from the funding which the Westgate Alliance has been asked to provide.
City can’t afford any more ‘mistakes’
Oxford Civic Society, Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT) and The Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society have all raised concerns.
Debbie Dance the director of OPT, said she was “extremely disappointed” with the plans put forward and criticised the developers for submitting a less-detailed application before a full one later this year.
She said: “The applicants have told us that this outline application approach is usual, even in an historic city of the importance of Oxford, and say it is a response to the market for shopping centres.
“They state that they need this level of flexibility, as they do not yet know who the tenants will be, other than John Lewis. We do not like or accept this approach, which brings too much uncertainty, at a time when Oxford is still reeling from past mistakes, such as at Port Meadow [near which student flats were built despite public opposition].”
Meanwhile, Peter Thompson, chairman of the civic society, has raised a number of concerns relating to traffic.
He said: “The absence of a coherent transport strategy for the city centre, but also for the whole of the city and its surrounding region, is unfortunate.
“It is clear that the Westgate development will have serious implications not only for the environment of the immediately-surrounding streets, but across the city and beyond.
“Oxford has something of a reputation as a difficult place to visit. A robust, viable transport strategy competently executed is surely a prerequisite to attracting the high-spending customers that the commercial viability of the scheme needs."
Who makes up the Westgate Alliance?
The Crown Estate
The Crown Estate is the property portfolio owned by The Crown and is one of the largest property owners in the UK.
Its property has a total worth of around £8.1bn – it owns almost the entire freehold of Regent Street in London, as well as half the buildings in St James’s.
Although nominally owned by the monarch, like the Crown Jewels the Crown Estate is not the private property of the reigning King or Queen.
It cannot be sold by him or her and its revenues do not go to them either.
The Crown Estate is formally accountable to Parliament and any surplus revenue is paid into the Treasury. In 2012/13, more than £252m from its surpluses was paid to the Government.
An artist’s impression featuring part of the proposed £400m Westgate Centre redevelopment
Land Securities Group is the largest commercial property company in the UK.
It owns and manages more than 29m sq ft of property – most notably perhaps the Piccadilly Lights in Piccadilly Circus.
The group can trace its origins to 1944 when its founder Harold Samuel bought Land Securities Investment Trust Limited, which owned three houses in Kensington and some Government stock.
Its portfolio has been valued at £8.5bn.
What's in store
About 70 new shops, including a 110,000 sq ft John Lewis department store
New cafes, restaurants and a cinema
A mixture of new covered and open streets as well as public squares
A new roof-top terrace with views over the city
A two-storey basement car park with around 1,000 spaces
Up to 122 homes
A new landscaped walkway along Castle Mill Stream
Two major new public squares
Two 24-hour east west pedestrian routes linking Oxford Castle with Turn Again Lane and Old Greyfriars Street with the City of Oxford College
Glenn Howells, who designed the Stirling Prize- nominated Savill Building in Windsor, will design the planned John Lewis store
Panter Hudspith, who are behind the Oxford Castle project, will work on the southern building next to Thames Street
Dixon Jones, who worked on the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House and extension of the National Portrait Gallery, will redesign the existing Westgate Centre
Allies and Morrison, who worked on the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall in London and the new astronomy centre for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, will design the proposed new building adjacent to the existing centre