Whilst the construction rate of new housing around the edge of town is apparently unstoppable the Didcot Gateway project has taken rather longer to get going.
I was reminded of this on a recent walk around the area. The old Didcot Labour Club, on the corner of Station Road and Lydalls Road, closed in 2012 and has been boarded up for many years. Along with several other derelict buildings and car parks it is due to be redeveloped as part of the Didcot Gateway project. I think most readers would agree redevelopment is long overdue.
Plans for the area
Originally the whole area, along Station Road from the old Julian’s car park up to Cow Lane bridge, was set for redevelopment. A planning proposal was submitted in 2015 for 300 homes, a hotel, a gym, office space and a new nursery. Although approved in 2016 it was subsequently withdrawn in 2020.
Further plans were proposed in 2020, although this time around the development area had shrunk, and now excluded Lydalls nursery, the pub and the SOHA offices. The proposals were unpopular with local residents. I can understand why. A seven storey flagship building on the site of the car park would be out of place amongst low rise development. And whilst the assumption that most new residents would use public transport, cycle or walk (thereby limiting parking requirements) was admirable it was also unrealistic.
So why is it taking so long? In the interests of research I’ve watched recordings of the Didcot Garden Town Advisory Board meetings, listened to speeches from the Resident Sounding Board, read the posts on the Local Voice for Didcot Gateway Facebook group and trawled through planning applications and a bat survey. I’ve tried to get my head around who owns what. And who makes the decisions.
Part of the issue appears to be site ownership. The original proposals included land owned by third parties; this is now excluded from the plans. Instead the new proposals focus on the land owned by Homes England and South Oxfordshire District Council. This covers the properties and car park at the junction of Lydalls/Station Road, the area running beside the railway (next to Cow Lane bridge) and the old Julian’s car park. But no longer the bit in between them; I think the pub survives to pull another pint.
The second issue is determining exactly what should go on the site. It’s the first area people see if they arrive by train so needs to have the wow factor. A bog standard block of high density flats isn’t going to cut it. Added to this, the development needs to complement the principles of the Didcot Garden Town master plan.
There has been some progress. Plans have been submitted to demolish the old Labour club building, houses and garages. This needs to be done sooner rather than later. The buildings are suffering from lack of maintenance and are starting to look dangerous.
Separately South Oxfordshire District Council has announced it will build its new HQ offices on the land opposite the railway station. The building will be smaller than their existing office space on Milton Park; post pandemic it plans to continue with flexible working, allowing employees to work from home some of the time. The council hopes to move in by spring 2023.
It’s right to take time to get things right. Despite the piecemeal development I hope the planning process ensures some uniformity across the design. I don’t believe Didcot needs another gym or hotel (given the Milton Gate options). My preference would be for something similar to the Goldsmith Street development in Norwich. That said, whatever replaces these buildings and car parks needs to be in keeping with the local area, high quality and truly sustainable.
What do you think?