Oxford City Council has a planning policy that its two universities must ensure that fewer than a certain number (3,000 I think in both cases) of their students should be living in “family housing” in the city. The upshot of this for someone like Oxford Brookes in particular, with a lot less land and university owned housing for its students, cannot grow in numbers of students until it has secured halls of residence to get those “living out” under that figure and keep it that way. So an increase in student numbers once that target is achieved must be accompanied by more dedicated student housing – halls of residence essentially.

Oxford has a housing problem, that’s for sure, and this, of course, is a well intentioned policy seeking to make up for its inability to allocate sufficient developable housing land for those who want and need to live here, by trying to make sure students are catered for outside the domestic residential market as much as possible. But its real effect is to have sent land prices soaring.

In favoured student locations in inner east Oxford you will be likely to pay from £100-£135 a week for a room in a shared house with, usually, shared facilities and common bills on top. The university’s halls will range from about £120-£160 and will include bills and in the upper half of that range an ensuite shoer room. But because land prices are already too high for a relatively unendowed university to pay, they are reliant on private halls providers to get the numbers living out to below 3,000.

These guys can ask a premium price, above most of the university’s halls, and tend to start at at least £150 a week and often considerably more. The university ends up having to sign occupancy agreements to fill them, even in preference to filling their own halls if it came to it. They even have to throw in inflation proofing rent rises, so there’s no downside even if they managed to saturate the market and oversupply (unlikely, I admit). And the well capitalised private halls developer can use this guarantee to bid up the price of land.

One recent case has seen land for a new hall of residence go at around £13m per hectare, with planning consent for something like 650 student rooms per hectare. This is a density of about 30 times that of its neighbourhood, and about 10 times that of the most densely populated parts of the city, which are also areas in which students tend to want to live in one-time family homes.

Now there’s nothing wrong with increasing density, and it just shows what can be achieved – 65,000 residents per square kilometre across the city would mean a population upward of 2,000,000 in Oxford! But these are the people paying the most, per person, to live at the highest density in the city and, thanks to the city’s policy, in a monopoly market, effectively, and often on low incomes (student loans barely cover accommodation even at the cheaper end of the market). It’s little wonder you get these spam adverts for investment “opportunities” in student halls of residence offering unfeasible sounding returns.

This is pure rip off. Created by planning policy, strangling one of the major generators of economic activity in the city and leaving some of the least able to afford it to bear the cost. Meanwhile, someone’s probably trousered about £10m effectively just for getting planning consent, helping to push up local land prices for us all in the process. Almost every consequence unintended and negative for all (except the well capitalised developer), meant to try and cover up the impotence of planners in delivering real housing in sufficient numbers for all the needs of the city.

Oxford. For the few, not the many.

Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/pondspider/4680748063 under Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Oxford: for the few, not the many!
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