Oxford Skyline...from OPT Lecture presentation (click to watch lecture)
Oxford Skyline…from OPT Lecture presentation (click to watch lecture)

I love Oxford. I have lived in bigger cities and I have lived in smaller cities and a few less urban places too, but, like baby bear’s porridge, Oxford is, shall we say, “just right”. I’ve been in or around Oxford for 26 years now, just over half my life. And though that scarcely makes me a “native” – like many of its denizens I will never be that – I think of it as my natural home for some reason. Not many people know this, but had my family stayed in Kenya when I was eight I would probably have been here earlier still, at twelve – my school over there had me lined up for St Edward’s.

But I probably won’t die here: I can’t afford to, unless I am carried out of my office in a box, perhaps. For far too many people the city is unaffordable: less than 50% of its households own their home. If that’s a touchstone of affordability, it’s a shocking statistic. And for those who can’t, and aren’t as “fortunate” as I am to have what used to be called “tied housing”, precarious as that is, they are left paying either extortionate rents or committing to a 25% additional “time tax” – commuting from the other side of the green belt or further.

So it was with some personal interest that I attended a lecture hosted by the Brookes Society on Wednesday night, given by the long time director of the Oxford Preservation Trust, Debbie Dance. [recording here]. One might feel that “preservation” and “development” are somewhat at odds with each other. And, at first sight, it may indeed appear that the OPT is more interested in conserving views of the city from well-heeled suburbs (and preventing views of the green backdrop from within the city centre being spoiled by horrors like housing for people who desperately need it). It is a corporate member of the Oxfordshire Green Belt Network, led by the Cabal for the Pilfering of the Rent of Englanders (CPRE), but professes it is not against sensitive development, including, where appropriate, in the green belt.

Somewhat disappointingly then, though nevertheless interesting, the lecture was more of an OPT family album of the sort of developments it has recently been involved with, for or against, and some of the applications coming through now that challenge some city policies such as three new “towers” that might interfere with the dreaming spires skyline. It took a question from yours truly to begin to address the real elephant in the room: how do we “preserve” all of Oxford’s glories for the future?

At this moment, Oxford hosts the highest ranked institution of higher education anywhere in the world and ‘Brookes ranked amongst “world’s top universities” for 15 subjects’. But unlike Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Zurich or the London high rollers, neither Oxford nor Cambridge have a hinterland that accommodates millions of people – a Boston, London, Chicago or Santa Clara where spin outs can flourish and which can house the best brains in the world to feed the development of their universities and the diverse economies needed to supply them.

And make no mistake, Oxford cannot take that position for granted in this rapidly globalising world. It is less than a century since Oxford university was being eclipsed by younger British rivals introducing new subjects and moving higher education away from training for imperial bureaucrats, lawyers and clerics and into modern sciences and technology. Around the turn of the 20th century I am told that Oxfordshire was the poorest county in England – all an agricultural backwater with a community of “poor scholars” at the centre.

One has to wonder whether those who want to prevent Oxford’s growth, actually would prefer us to return to a quaint backwater with nothing remarkable to offer the world but a few decaying old buildings in a mediaeval tourist theme park. Or, like one of our MPs, an even newer resident, though one now with an £80k salary paid for by me and others, some of whom have become wealthier because of her opposition to housing for others!, reckon that our growth era is over because of Brexit. How’s that for talking down your constituency?

Most of them actually rely on having a thriving city on their doorstep, for work, for business, for shopping and entertainment and for the agglomeration benefits that come with it – public transport, social and cultural opportunities and so on. But unaccountably don’t apparently want to see it thrive. Why should it not be those who don’t want to live near a thriving city that have to relocate, rather than those who would love to, if they could afford to, but can’t because of their objections?

But do they have legitimate concerns that we need to address? Of course, there is a risk that rent-seeking developer led housing, aimed squarely at extracting the maximum uplift from land values of the kind that gives executives £100m+ bonus packages, will just attract people priced out of places like London because of their restrictive policies. There is a risk that we will add hundreds of acres of “little boxes, made of ticky tacky” as the musician and activist Pete Seeger sang:

Planning is necessary but not sufficient

Whilst some local authorities have been brave in the face of fierce opposition and made moves toward allocating land for the city’s expansion, that itself is not sufficient. As I have written previously, so little new land is allocated and usually once in a generation, that by the time it reaches the development stage it does little to steady house prices. Even where the city council themselves owned suitable land, in handing it over to the Fat Hunter’s family concern to develop, the resulting housing will make little dent in the city’s affordability. The “land value cliff” has already spread from the current city edge, to the new one created by the as yet incomplete development.

KidlingtonDevelopmentAnd so it may be with Cherwell’s brave allocation of land near Kidlington. Left to developers and land owners to haggle over how much of the publicly created uplift to capture for themselves, without powers to force development it too will drip feed new housing into the market at a rate that maintains and even increases housing costs.

Oxford City, of course, could house more people. A lot more. At densities similar to Paris, for instance, famously with a resstriction on “high buildings”, we could accomodate around a million people in the current built up area instead of the c. 160,000 we have today. That is of course a big ask, and not what is at the moment at least needed. But so little development has happened in recent decades that much of the city’s suburbs are now 50-80 years old, long past their design lifespan, and becoming more and more inappropriate for the technology filled needs of the twenty-first century. Indeed, at current replacement rates our new housing will have to be designed to last as long as the pyramids of Giza!

Successive waves of development over the last century have, of course, carved up the land into little individual plots that are now held by 50,000 different private owners. Without some enormous change in how we view land, it is very difficult to assemble sites large enough to make higher densities more palatable, with a result, no doubt, that smaller sites will need to reach higher, into the “towers” that OPT fears. It is all very well for planners to paint maps in pretty colours and to suggest policies such as higher densities or urban renewal but they have no mechanism to make that happen. Indeed, when they insist on all sorts of impositions on developers, such as affordable housing quotas and infrastructure payments they will suppress the very development they want to see as developers and landowners find it less profitable to release land.

Without the ability actually to “deliver the new homes, businesses, jobs, shops, and infrastructure needed to support the growth of Oxford over the next 20 years to 2036” as the emerging Oxford Local Plan hubristically proclaims we will see another generation priced out, at a critical time for Britain and for global competitiveness in higher education and technological spin outs. Why should we even engage with such a toothless process? One whose previous attempts have failed, and failed spectacularly, robbing its citizens in the process! Oxford and its global reputation could sink as quickly as it has risen. Ironically of course that’s one sure fire way of making it more affordable!

The Community Development Land Trust

So what can we offer as a vehicle by which medium and long term redevelopment of both the city and its near neighbours can be controlled in the interests of local communities as well as those that need new housing? It should preferably be one that uses the market rather than compulsion and “Stalinist land use planning” as a fellow councillor once described it. Public housing is not going to be the answer for people looking to come here for a slice of the prosperity emanating from great technological innovation and higher study, and nor should it be necessary to heavily subsidise one group of people from the productivity of others just to ensure they have shelter, raising costs for everyone in the process.

Fortunately the model for local voluntary cooperation in community (re)development has been around for a century and more. The sort of development land trusts that led the Garden Cities movement are still around today, and, while small at the moment in the UK at least, have a model that would allow, for instance, such a trust to buy up property as it comes on the market, hold it in the interests of the local community, controlling its letting and use, until sufficient had been built up in a local portfolio to do a decent size neighbourhood redevelopment, offering, perhaps, new for old for remaining residents, more appropriate local housing for those no longer needing their former family home, or harder to manage garden. These can even be structured such that local investors in the trust get dividends in the meantime, and a neighbourhood could control the council tax contributions of its members to encourage new development. They could give Neighbourhood Plan groups some real teeth to influence their areas.

For new sites, which will still be needed to tide us over until inner urban development sites can be assembled in this way, such a development trust can bring together the interests of local communities to achieve a more harmonious development than pure for-profit developers can. Local group Homes for Oxford put forward a plan, working with the community in Wolvercote, for the OUP paper mill site there that would have achieved higher densities, a better mix of housing, and employment opportunities and facilities demanded by the existing community. We must remember that the landowners involved in Cherwell’s land release would get absolutely nothing if there were no planning consent, so to ask them to accept a smaller uplift to get something the existing and new residents can live more comfortably with should still bring them eye-watering riches compared with current use values.

Bodies such as the Oxford Civic Society and Oxford Preservation Trust, along with existing efforts to get Community Land Trusts going in Oxfordshire, such as the Oxfordshire CLT of which I am a founder member, and Cherwell Community Land Trust, all of whom recognise there’s a gap for such a cooperative vehicle to promote and control development, could take a lead in promoting such schemes in the debate we all recognise has to happen. The primary need would be for some form of financial underwriting so that the vehicle could start to acquire property on the market. Once it is going, it could usually borrow against its existing, growing portfolio in its area of influence.

Of course, the great silver bullet would be for Oxford city to be allowed to pilot land value tax (or, as it is usually called for local taxation, Site Value Rating) instead of the outdated and regressive Council Tax. By properly pricing the cost of occupying valuable locations, it would encourage those areas that have benefited most from both public and private provision of servcices and infrastructure, to redevelop at more appropriate densities, ultimately reducing overall land use and allowing us to maintain the green and compact city that many residents of Oxford value so highly.

But until we grasp the nettle and realise that local planning authorities cannot deliver, however high they aim, and that we need vehicles that operate in a difficult market to assemble and control development sites, we will be back here in twenty years, perhaps with a hollowed out city and its no longer global institutions, wondering where our golden egg went.

Preserving Oxford…from itself