1970s renewal in Jericho

Fig. 1:   The campanile of St. Barnabas rises above typical Jericho houses. This Italianate tower was built in 1872, and re-roofed in 1893.
Fig. 1: The campanile of St. Barnabas rises above typical Jericho houses. This Italianate tower was built in 1872, and re-roofed in 1893.

In a chapter in his 1977 book, the Erosion of Oxford, Professor James Stevens Curl assessed the 1970s redevelopment of Jericho.

Posted - October 15, 2013

Chapter 7 - Jericho and the North

‘Gradual renewal is a continuous process of minor rebuilding and renovation .... responsive to social and physical needs as they develop and change.
(Department of the Environment Circular 13/75)

The quotation under the chapter heading perhaps lacks the ancestry of some other pieces I have used to embellish other chapters. It is hardly deathless prose, but it marks a profoundly significant change in official attitudes.

Government circulars based on future renewal strategies mark the end of official approval of comprehensive redevelopment. As from 1975, local authorities are advised to use gradual renewal, including renovation, so that the disruption of existing communities can be avoided.

Comprehensive clearance and redevelopment was a highly expensive and destructive solution. Communities were destroyed, social costs were not included, and many potentially fine buildings were wrecked because they lacked a bathroom, or because they needed repair because of years of bureaucratic blight. St. Ebbe’s was a victim of the old methods.

It is a fact that the more eagerly authorities bought up huge areas of housing for demolition, the less likely housing was likely to go up to replace the destroyed property. Costs of new building put paid to such grandiose dreams, but more and more the energy consumption became a factor. Real capital, in the form of old buildings, was being squandered. The damage in national terms was colossal, and will probably never be put right now.

The Erosion of Oxford

Gradual renewal and rehabilitation are attractive for their social benefits and financial advantages. Central government is only now recognising the need to control the rate of obsolescence, but in Oxford one area of the city was singled out in the 1960s for special treatment by the Planning Authority. The wholesale flattening of St. Ebbe’s and the total inertia over the redevelopment had caused some worry. The threat of a local authority initiative in Jericho caused a tremendous ‘resistance movement’ among the inhabitants who, fortunately, had able leadership among those living in Jericho.

Gradual renewal rather than comprehensive redevelopment had an airing in various debates of a decade ago. Oxford City Council, however, anticipated later official policy as long ago as 1966 when a reasoned policy of continuous renewal was proposed for Jericho, a largely residential area lying to the west of Walton Street, between the railway and North Oxford. For the most part Jericho consists of two-storey mid-nineteenth-century terrace housing, with corner shops, pubs, and other buildings. It developed gradually from the time of William IV following the building of the University Press buildings in the area, and the growth of the railway and canalside activities. A foundry was established in Jericho that produced much of Oxford’s cast-iron goods. A school by George Edmund Street, and the colossal Italianate Church of St. Barnabas by Sir Arthur Blomfield added style to the area (fig. 1). It is good to see that the parish the church serves is being rehabilitated. It is a pity that the quality of some of the designs could not be bettered, however, but surely it is encouraging that Jericho is not being battered into limbo as was the sad fate of St. Ebbe’s. May St. Barnabas’ church, designed more than a century ago, long stand over a renewed and better Jericho! It has perhaps one of the best Victorian church interiors in the whole area, and in Oxford is uniquely fine. Although unfinished, it is a glowingly resplendent interior, and outside, the functional and bold treatment of brick and rendering is a salutary lesson to those who have plastered their buildings with dozens of different materials in the hope, vain as it turns out, that something of quality will emerge.

Typical street sceneFig. 2: A typical street scene in Jericho showing the traditional textured brickwork with yellow headers and red stretchers.

Most of the streets in Jericho were built of numbers of short abutting terraces, usually by local builders, some of whose firms still survive in the area. Traditions of decorative brickwork survived in Jericho and fig. 2 shows a typical street scene. Preliminary surveys showed houses of varying states of unfitness, with some well-maintained, but others were blighted by insecurity over which way the Council would jump. Some houses were in poor condition owing to lack of capital.

New developmentFig. 3: A new development in the existing street. Buildings on the old building-line are much more successful than the examples shown in fig. 5.

The results of the survey prompted some councillors to demand the complete razing of Jericho and its re-zoning for industry, but a social survey revealed a stable community, with most inhabitants keen to stay.

Gradual renewal was decided upon, and private owners were encouraged to improve their properties. Grants were made available, and purchase of houses by agreement rather than by compulsion was used where it was necessary for the Council to take over property. A number of houses thus passed into Council ownership, and this ensured a wide social mix.

Walton StreetFig. 4. The buildings in Walton Street with their lively tradition of strongly coloured bricks.

Many ‘improvements’, however, such as fake shutters, are totally out of character, and could be considered to detract from the simple architectural elements. Private enterprise has been hard at work slotting new buildings within the fabric, in some cases successfully maintaining the scale (fig. 3), but unfortunately the Planning Department’s love for dull brown bricks has prevailed. When a lively tradition of using strongly coloured bricks existed in much of the surviving fabric in the area of Jericho and Walton Street (fig. 4).

New buildings set backRight: fig. 5. New buildings set back in Jericho. Note the useless ill-kempt grass, and the fact that the set-back destroys the scale and enclosure of the street. The relationship between the solids and the voids in the new building is weak and unresolved.

It is hard to understand why a dull, lifeless, boring brick should have been insisted upon. Elsewhere in Jericho, new developments have not quite lived up to the old developments (fig. 5). The restless lines of the buildings on the left pay little heed to the traditional terrace pattern, while the squalid little patches of grass on the right, fenced in with the Good Taste metal rail, will not only be difficult to maintain, but help to erode the very qualities that give Jericho a character that people want to enjoy.

Renewal in Jericho is infinitely preferable to the disaster of St. Ebbe’s, even though quite large chunks of Jericho have been razed, with most unfortunate visual, and, one suspects, social results. The plan has, to some extent, retained an existing stable community, as well as saved a number of small businesses that provide work and services. New elements have been slotted in, and private enterprise has combined with the local authority in a constructive manner.

Grantham HouseFig. 6. New flats in Jericho with the foundry in the background. If a policy of partial clearance, much rehabilitation, and a combination of private and public endeavour had prevailed in St. Ebbe’s, much hardship would have been avoided.

The foundry has built a block of pleasant flats adjacent to the works (fig. 6) with a car park in the basement. The foursquare ‘panelled’ style of the building is very much of the late 1950s and early 1960s, although the building was only completed in the early 1970s. There is so much evidence of simple windows on brick walls in the Jericho area that it is perhaps a pity that the vernacular tradition was not carried through in this large and important building by the foundry gates. If the windows had been treated as holes in the walls, part of the ‘panelled’ effect would have been removed, and the building would have related more to its surroundings.

The rejection of a ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ approach has prevented wholesale blighting as well as a great reduction in the numbers of houses. The declaration of Jericho as a General Improvement Area would considerably help matters.

There are, however, several points that need to be considered in relation to the physical changes of the area. In many instances, facades have been unbalanced by the insertion of inappropriate windows and doors. New blocks, replacing property at the end of its life, do not always respect the existing fabric. In some cases, set-backs, different patterns of fenestration, and other factors spoil the flow and scale of streets.

[The chapter continues with an assessment of the redevelopment of North Oxford]

This article, and the accompanying images, form the first part of Chapter 7 of The Erosion of Oxford by Professor James Stevens Curl. Oxford Illustrated Press, 1977. We are grateful to Professor Curl for his kind permission to reproduce this material.

Did you know?

Why Hart Street?

Hart Street was named after the Printer to the University 1883-1915.

Cranham Street used to be a blot on the city

Before Grantham House was built, the site became notoriously derelict, making Cranham Street according to the local press a ‘blot on the city’ – wrecked by local children, and a refuge for rats and for ‘layabouts sleeping off the drink’ who were repeatedly evicted by the police.