By Richard Lofthouse
Passing through the funny bit of downtown Oxford known as Oxpens (the ice rink, east of the railway station, looking towards the city centre), I had to blink. It was the slightly grey, slightly pink, slightly yellow twilight of an early spring day in mid-March. It was cool if not cold exactly, bright in a brittle way. Yet the yellowish hue reminded me of hot climes, as did the scene of desolation before me.
A half-destroyed multi-storey carpark, mounds of rubble, twisted columns of steel cable, a multitude of Squibb bulldozers and a rather extraordinary Komatsu High Reach Demolition Excavator, as it is called — a sort of chomping dinosaur with a very long craning neck and giant, metal jaws that can tear down even the strongest concrete structure. As I squinted at all this through a grid of safety fence, I felt my jaw slackening.
I realised that I had seen this array of desolation on news bulletins about Syria, and in recent years about Misrata in Libya, and the West Bank. Hot weather and dust and destruction. But this is progress in front of us, we are told, and it is not Damascus or Misrata, but Oxford.
There is no reason to disagree with Oxford Times writer Chris Gray, that the Westgate car park is a ‘longstanding blot on the Oxford landscape’. Soon to be no more, it will be mourned by very few people. It has always been one of those bits of Oxford that strikes a jarring note with the picturesque High, Turl, Broad and St Giles thoroughfares, where history has been allowed to continue unimpeded and on a human scale, and popular retail sites such as Boswells allowed to nestle within the built environment rather than commanding their own, purpose-built space.
The Westgate shopping centre has always been separate, and essentially nothing to do with historic Oxford. As a student, I very occasionally entered it and felt, with a mixture of relief and incongruousness, that I had totally left behind any trace of the University. I was now on Planet Retail, in a parallel universe that recalled the familiar but (as I now see it) dull reality of my upbringing in Northampton.
The Oxford Times recently shared images of what the new Westgate Centre will look like, after a £440 million redevelopment. I showed them to two friends, who said without hesitation that it looked ‘absolutely awful’. We have to be careful about such hasty judgements. If I have any concern it is really about the declared purpose of the shopping centre. Labour city councillor Colin Cook insists that it’s ‘long overdue’, citing the fact that Oxford has simply been ‘losing out to competitors like Reading, Milton Keynes and Bicester Village’. That, in a nutshell, is why the planned centre should be a matter for concern. Is it Oxford’s role to compete with Bicester Village and Milton Keynes, where plate glass and vast, simply vast car parks rule the roost? Is that the purpose of Oxford too, or could it have set its sights a bit higher (and quirkier) in respect of retail?
The new shopping centre will have a car park underground. Out of sight doesn’t mean it’s not dragging traffic in and out of the city centre on a large scale, which is exactly what the city authorities need to curtail, rather than encourage — a major theme of the cover story of the forthcoming print issue of Oxford Today.
I guess I’m not alone in remembering Oxford’s retail offering through a fine mist of Ben’s Cookies and Brown’s Café, both in the Covered Market, plus the strangely incompetent yet well-scaled Co-op under Cornmarket, and occasionally Budgens in Summertown, and Sainsbury’s at St Aldate’s. It was all workable on foot or by bicycle.
With the advent of internet groceries, for hardworking families needing huge shops, there is something thoroughly incongruous about the Westgate plan for a hundred new shops, a multiplex cinema and twenty five further cafés and restaurants. First of all, it is exactly the sort of scheme recently rejected by the community of Botley as being totally unsuitable, to the complete befuddlement of the developers who seem to see the world only through multiplex modernity and rental incomes. Secondly, it is all very last-century, with its encouragement of cars and its fixation on large brands.
Here was a golden opportunity for Oxford to do something differently, reflecting Oxford’s essential difference. But it appears to have been squandered in favour of going head to head with Bicester Village. We will be living with the consequences for the rest of this century.
More from Richard Lofthouse on concrete coming down and green shoots coming up:
Westgate demolition image by Richard Lofthouse for Oxford Today. Protest against Westgate expansion, 2008, photographed by ludwig van standard lamp, via Flickr, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.