Challenges around Oxford’s housing situation are well-reported. A combination of unique and complex historical constraints, resulting planning protections, together with natural limitations of the floodplain area mean residential space is at an absolute premium. Add to this a student population of nearly 34,000, question marks over green belt development and a public perception that local government’s housing strategy is not clear and the picture is both complex and unclear
This leaves us with a housing market under pressure, with poor choice, high prices and a real need for leadership as to how the City plans for the future.
A City for students, keyworkers and young people
Oxford’s high student population inevitably puts acute pressure on the private rental market. Both the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University are responding to this by developing additional bespoke accommodation blocks, enabling more students to opt for university housing, freeing up capacity in the private rental sector. Recent planning policy changes, however, have made this more difficult as the city planners seek to limit the criteria for locations of new student accommodation schemes. Some Colleges, such as Somerville, have been able to construct new high quality purpose built accommodation within their own boundaries, but it is not possible for all.
At the same time, both key workers and young people find it increasingly challenging to get on the housing ladder; the average young person has to spend 16 years saving up for their deposit for a first home. Even then, their options are too expensive or very poor quality stock; figures from Oxford City Council show that the average house price here is over 17 times average earnings.
Shaping the economy
The shortage of affordable housing has wider implications. Oxford’s growing economy as an education hub and location for fast-growth tech companies means its unemployment rate is just 1%. This in turn puts further pressure on the City’s employers.
Businesses are essentially competing with the London market or the science and business parks such as Oxford Science Park and Harwell Campus, as employees opt to live in more affordable outskirt locations. The end result? A shortage of talent in both the public and private sectors, and traffic congestion on the roads in and out of the City.
Property trends in Oxford
Where does this leave Oxford’s property market? From our perspective, the exciting buildings have been centred around the University of Oxford such as the new Maths Institute and the Blavatnik School of Government. Where protection and planning allows, developers are looking at converting old buildings and using permitted development rights. If we look further afield, real innovation and place-making is happening in centres such as Harwell Campus, with its masterplan to blend specialist laboratories, bespoke office space and leisure facilities to create a genuinely unique and modern place to work and live.
Looking at more original ways to expand housing options, let’s look at the impact of the successful Westgate development on the centre’s landscape. Despite concerns that the shopping centre would draw shoppers away from the high street, a broader trend to independent and more sustainable shopping could support boutique shops with residential occupation replacing current old office stock on the upper floors. With the option to develop housing above these independent retailers, it is possible this could create a more vibrant city centre.
Room for real leadership
With the local population increase set to put ever more pressure on Oxford, the time for a joint solution – across government, universities and business – is critical. Collectively we need to work together to create a broader vision, think long term and have the confidence to go beyond traditional thinking. Whether it is midrise buildings in the City centre, extending development in the green belt or widening streets to support infrastructure, decisions are needed. We only have to look to our friends in Cambridge to see how an entire landscape and eco-system can be transformed when we dare to innovate.
The Oxfordshire Voice initiative is one such response to the perceived lack of leadership. A collaboration between public and private sector organisations, it aims to inform and influence those policies and decisions that impact the future economic performance and growth of Oxfordshire.
For now, decisive action is needed to ensure we retain our thriving, forward thinking economy and behave responsibly for our residents.
Written by: Richard Smith, Partner, Commercial Property, Planning and Environmental Law – Penningtons Manches