Context 166 - November 2020

18 C O N T E X T 1 6 6 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 2 0 MALCOLM AIRS The voluntary sector and the planning of Oxford Campaigners protected their beautiful city before conservation became part of the planning system, and the voluntary sector continues to shape the debate today. Given that William Morris rated Oxford ‘the most important town of England’, it is no surprise that proposals for change which have threatened its established character have caused its citizens to come together in a variety of dif- ferent ways to defend what they saw as precious about the city. In the period before conservation became a professional discipline within the plan- ning system they made a real difference, and the voluntary sector continues to make an articulate contribution to the discussion on current issues. As well as being a university city of supreme beauty, Oxford is the birthplace of the mass- produced motor car. One of the consequences has been horrendous traffic congestion on the narrow streets of the medieval centre. Possible solutions have been passionately debated ever since the second world war and have sharply divided public opinion. Most of the controversy centred on the proposal for a road across the open Christ Church meadow, which provided a tranquil rural setting to the south between the sharply defined limits of the medieval walls of the city and the River Thames. The road, intended to relieve the traffic on the High Street, was first mooted by a local architect, Lawrence Dale, in a pamphlet published in 1941. The proposal generated such outrage that Dale felt the need to respond with an expanded vision for the whole city.This envisaged an inner ring road as an opportunity for redeveloping large areas of working class housing in St Clements and St Ebbes to the east and west of the city centre. Dale saw the meadow road as a tree-lined mall located close to the river. He set out his arguments in Towards a Plan for Oxford City, published as a book by Faber and Faber in 1944. It reached a large enough audience to merit a second edition in the same year. Partly in response, the city council commis- sioned the eminent planner Thomas Sharp to prepare a report on the future development of the city. This was also published as a book by the Architectural Press called Oxford Replanned (1948). Like Dale, Sharp believed that a relief road across the meadow was essential but he placed it closer to the city walls. Despite a sensi- tive analysis of the historic character of the city, he proposed a brutal solution to its perceived problems with a whole network of new roads and large areas which he characterised as slums or ‘outworn’, ripe for development. Over the next 30 years the idea of a southern relief road went through several iterations and public inquiries, with passionate arguments Christ Church Meadow with the city wall and Merton College in the background (Photo: Thom Airs) Oxford from Boars Hill on land purchased by Oxford Preservation Trust to preserve the view (Photo: Thom Airs)