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Oxford Local History Pages - The Cutteslowe Walls

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This Account of the Cutteslowe Walls is taken from: The Cutteslowe Walls a study in social class by Peter Collison published by Faber and Faber in 1963.

Legal Challenges to the Walls

In the early days of the dispute, it appears that the few councillors and officials who were involved did not take the walls seriously. The Corporation exercised wide powers through its by-laws over the construction of streets and buildings and had specified in detail in the conveyance both what the Company was required to build and what it was not permitted to build.

When negotiations with the Company broke down the Highways, Sewers and Lighting Committee obtained an independent legal opinion. This opinion by Mr R M Montgomery, K.C. was received in December 1934 and was unfavourable to the Corporation on every count.

According to Mr Montgomery, the roads on the Urban Housing Estate were not public highways and there were no grounds for suggesting that anyone other than the residents had any right of way over them. The Company could not be compelled to dedicate its roads as public highways and the conveyance gave no powers to insist that they should be open.

By-law 10 stated:
Every person who shall lay out a new street shall provide that one end, at least, of such street and where practicable both ends, shall be open from the ground upwards to the full width of such street.

By a clause in the conveyance, the Company was bound to build its roads 'in accordance with the Building By-laws as to new streets'. Mr Montgomery advised the Corporation that this by-law was ultra vires and void. A second opinion was obtained in January 1935 from Mr W E Tyldesley Jones, K.C., and was almost identical to Mr Montgomery's.

By-law 10 had originally been approved by the Local Government Board which had subsequently been replaced by the Ministry of Health. The Town Clerk raised the issue of this by-law with the Ministry. He was told that tbe Minister of Health, once having allowed a by-law, had nothing further to do with it and the question of its legal validity was something that only the courts could decide. It so happened, however, that the government model on which By-law 10 had been based was being reconsidered in the Ministry and the Town Clerk was told that if he sent counsel's opinion and a copy of the by-law the Ministry would look into the problem. This was done but nothing was heard from the Ministry for six months.

In the meantime the Town Planning Committee looked at the Town and Country Planning Act of 1932 to see if this could provide a means to get the walls taken down. It recommended that a planning scheme containing suitable compulsory purchase provisions be prepared and submitted for Summertown. This recommendation was accepted by the City Council on 4th March 1935 but the Council was then informed that the Minister of Health would not accept a planning scheme for Summertown alone and a revised proposal to prepare a plan for the whole of Oxford was accepted by the City Council on 1st April 1935.

This approach would have taken years to become effective and was by no means certain of success so it was quickly abandoned. On March 26th the Town Planning Committee recommended legal proceedings for breach of the by-law 'notwithstanding the opinion of counsel'. On April 5th 1935 the Highways, Sewers and Lighting Committee decided to recommend the Council to take legal proceedings for breach of the by-law and it instructed the Town Clerk to brief counsel accordingly.

This proposal came before the full City Council on May 8th, having previously been considered by the Property Management Committee which was not open to the press or public. It was hardly discussed because the Cuncil was angry and impatient. Many of its members agreed with Councillor Gill who said: ' withthe law's delays they will never be down'. Most of the debate was concerned with a new resolution which required the Corporation to have the walls taken down immediately on its own authority. A proposal to have this amendment referred back for further diccussion was only just carried by a majority of one.

The problem was debated again on 20th May 1935 and the Council decided by forty-six votes to one to take proceedings for breach of its by-law. Captain Button, a representative of Summertown and Wolvercote ward declared: 'there is only one thing to do and that is to fight'. Councillor Gill had visited Cutteslowe and told his fellow councillors:

'There was this high wall with barbed-wire entanglements and behind it, cut off like wild animals or savage creatures, there was a collection of citizens of this city...These are methods of the Stone Age, and this in a country fit for heroes to live in. The people are herded behind walls and barbed wire like Germans in a concentration camp....Cost what it may, either in money or effort, we will have those walls down.'

However, only four days after this rousing speech, the Council received a letter from the Ministry of Health regardingthe by-law stating that it 'did not apply so as to prohibit the erection by the estate-owners of the walls' and that the Corporation would have to look elsewhere for legal powers to demolish the walls.This letter came before a private meeting of the Council on May 27th 1935 and was made public by the Oxford MailReport in Oxford Mail on the same day. It also referred to the two legal opinions that had been obtained and noted that they were unfavourable to the Corporation. This made the existence of these legal opinions public knowledge for the first time.

At a debate held on 3rd June a number of councillors complained that they had not been told about counsel's opinion and that the whole affair had been treated secretively. Councillor Gibbs attempted to have all the material placed before the Council prior to a private discussion of the problem but his motion was defeated and the Council decided to hand the problem back to the Highways, Sewers and Lighting Committee. Councillor Gibbs marched out of the chamber in disgust.

After this the problem dropped into the background for some months. The Highways Committee tried to come to some settlement by an informal approach to the Company but the negotiations were fruitless and at the beginning of August the committee reported that it was considering providing an alternative route for the Cutteslowe people. In September 1935 the Council decided to hand the whole problem over to the Parliamentary Committee

The Parliamentary Committee now sent a representative to the Company to see if a settlement could be reached. He reported on 7th October that the Company was willing to contribute to the cost of buying a plot of land to provide an alternative route from the Cutteslowe Estate. However, the owner of the plot in question refused to sell. The representative was then sent back to the Company to enquire if the Company's objections would be met if the Corporation were to remove from the Cutteslowe Estate all the people who had been housed there under slum clearance arrangements. The Company was not prepared to consider this suggestion.

The Parliamentary Committee now turned to the Public Works Facilities Act of 1930 in the hopes of finding a legal way of bringing the walls down.

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