Freitag, 10. Oktober 2008

castle mill

My family home in Oxford lies close to the Oxford Canal. Today it sustains a wonderful subculture of ageing hippies, eco-warriors and other assorted boaties, who have collectively turned the towpath into a charming stretch of colourful narrowboats, gardens and pets. The Jericho side of the river was also home to the historic Castle Mill Boatyard, until developers fixed their beady eyes on it a few years ago. There followed a long and bloody battle between, on the one hand an alliance of locals and boaties, who wished to maintain a communal facility which in many ways defines that part of Oxford, and the other hand investors and British Waterways, who saw the boatyard as ripe for redevelopment. The boatyard was in fact only the last in a number of 'brownfield' sites along the canal which had been targeted for development on the last years. A number of factories and store houses had been demolished to make way for uninspiring and badly planned estates. A reaction to government housing targets and the, then still, buoyant property market. The boatyard was the final straw, and when things came to a head there was even a pitched battle between the supporters of the boatyard and the city's bailiffs. The money won of course, and for the last year a hastily erected wall has kept the boatyard fenced off while developers came up with plans for the luxury flats they envisaged.

All seemed lost, and whilst the people who call the canal their home and various local figureheads, charities and enterprises continued to push for dialogue, there was a feeling amongst the community as a whole that the last piece of cultural heritage along the canal was soon to be lost. All that remained was for the investors to pour cement into the water and call it a motorway. But now it appears a mixture of celebrity endorsement and benign government inquiry have breathed new life into the struggle for the boatyard. The land still belongs to the developers, but for the second time in 3 years plans have been overruled and calls for a 'different' approach have been made. Quoting at length from today's Guardian, in which Phillip Pullman, who used the boatyard as inspiration for one of his Dark Materials books, gives his esteemed opinion:

"This decision probably makes it almost impossible to build luxury flats there. But it does not guarantee the survival of the boatyard," said Pullman. "A group now hopes to buy it. In effect, Spring have a site that they cannot develop. They have spent millions. The ideal situation now would be for a fairy godmother to appear with a pot of gold and make over the site to a trust."

He said that he and others wanted to see the site around the 160-year-old canal boat repair yard developed into social housing and workshops.

Castle Mill in the Jericho district of central Oxford is the last public boatyard on the Oxford canal and was essential to the 120 families who live on boats in Oxford. Opponents barricaded themselves into the boatyard to stop bailiffs clearing the site in 2005 but were eventually evicted by British Waterways, which owns the site.

The battle for the Jericho yard has been described as a fight for the "soul" of Oxford. This was the second public inquiry which has refused permission for luxury housing on the site. Another property company, Bellway Homes, was refused planning permission to develop the site in 2005. Spring is believed to have bought the site for around £4m.

Pullman told the first inquiry: "The boatyard and its work is part of a complex human ecology that sustains all kinds of life: economic life, artistic life, social life, environmental life, cultural life in the widest possible sense. It's part of what has made Oxford the incomparably fertile place it is, a place where the imagination can take root and flourish. It takes centuries to build up this rich soil."

One positive effect of the credit crunch on the building industry will hopefully be an end to the rapid development of sites without any regard for their historical and cultural significance. In the long term this approach is simply uneconomical. Sustainable development is not a result but a process. Gentrification is a word that carries negative connotations with it these days, but it is a fact that if an important cultural facility is razed and an insular, gated block of luxury apartments is built in its place, both the new intervention and the existing context will struggle to acclimatise. Eventually the boatyard will disappear - for good or bad it represents a lifestyle that is dying out - but there is a vast spectrum of uses and sub-uses the site should evolve through. A gradual and responsive cycle.

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