Hugh Blaza, our man in Oxford, reviews an extraordinary year in and extraordinary city.

It was all going so well…

The judges for the 2019 awards had met and chosen the winners (from an incredibly strong field).

Keble College was booked and tickets for OxPropFest had just about all been sold. We had assembled a fantastic range of speakers and topics for our debates. And we were particularly looking forward to holding our event at Keble’s brand new and (as it turned out) award winning HB Allen Centre.

And then…well we all know what happened next.

UK Prop Social’s mission is to bring the property community together to exchange news, views and opinions. When the lockdown struck, we feared the worst. But although we weren’t able to see everyone’s smiling faces in person we, like the rest of the business world, quickly adapted.

Who knew we were all ready to colonise our spare rooms and start zooming on our PCs and laptops? Who knew we’d all be tuning into webinars (was that word coined this year – we’ve all grown so used to it!)? Who knew our periodicals (Thames Tap, Eastern Echo and London West) would be so full of news and views of new developments?

And who’d have thought the UK PropFest would take place on a virtual platform? We beamed it live from the Clubhouse at Bicester Motion, with a pioneering awards evening to amuse and delight all who tuned in to see who the winners were and just how (not to mention whether) Matthew Battle and I would pull it off!

So yes, we’re still here. If it feels like we’ve been through a bit of a revolution and that we’re now coming out the other side in a new, dare I say it, 21st Century way, then that has to be good news!

But out in the real world, the toll has been heavy. Not being so close to the front line, it’s relatively easy to overlook the horrific incidence of the illness and loss of life in all parts of the country.

And of course, the particularly massive hit to the visitor, entertainment and hospitality sectors. Even for those lucky enough to survive, it will take a long time for them to rebuild. In this part of the country, we’re so lucky that our wealth and the beauty of our natural and built environments mean that the recovery should be relatively swift once the virus is under control.

The sense of optimism I’m feeling does seem to be reflected across our membership community. Inspired by the signs that the Oxford – Milton Keynes – Cambridge Arc concept is really starting to go through the gears now, our members tell us they’ve never been busier.

And the innovation activity throughout the region is colossal; the collaboration between Oxford University and Cambridge-based AstraZeneca to produce one of the world’s first Covid vaccines is surely symptomatic of this.

Our city and county have continued to build a head of steam and of the many new developments arriving in 2020, these come readily to mind:

  • Permission for the Oxford North mixed-use development
  • Permission for Univ North, a £60m+ development for University College Oxford, straddling the Woodstock and Banbury Roads
  • Fast tracking Harwell’s national vaccine centre
  • Bicester Motion’s developing vision for its site as a centre of excellence for the historic cars sector, not to mention the future of the automobile.
  • The proposed conversion of Boswells department store in Oxford city centre into a leading hotel and meeting place
  • The new life sciences building for the University
  • The prospect of very significant increases in house building with the adoption of Local Plans in South Oxfordshire and Cherwell Districts
  • Permission for 500 homes on the Oxford Brookes Wheatley campus following a planning appeal
  • Confirmation that the long-awaited improvement works to Oxford station will happen, as part of the overall plans to develop the west end of the city, from Oxpens to Osney Mead and many points between

But in the world of property and development there will always be controversy and debate; the connection with the political process – not to mention what people actually want and need – is inevitable. And we’ve had our fair share…

  • The unprecedented intervention of Housing Minister Jenrick in the saga of South Oxfordshire’s Local Plan, now adopted but more as an exercise in pragmatism than with any great enthusiasm from the Council.
  • Bus gates for Oxford city centre: now you see ‘em, now you don’t..!
  • Just what’s happening at the Oxpens site?
  • What is the high street for?
  • Will working from home be the new way?
  • How can we achieve net environmental gain?

But overall, we’ve been so fortunate here to have the institutions, the innovators and the wealth to help us ride this wave. I’ve been saying for quite a few years now that I’ve never known a time of such activity in and around Oxford, whether actual and anticipated. The challenge for all is to ensure it’s done properly.

Which means respect for our precious environment. Everyone tells us that ‘building back greener’ is a priority so let’s hope the planners and developers make sure we do.

UK Property Forums has some great plans in the pipeline for 2021 and I’m really looking forward to the participation of our community. Who knows, we may even be shaking hands again before long!

Merry Christmas to all and a very happy and prosperous New Year!

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