Some of the leading figures in the remarkable development scene in Oxford came together last week for OxPropSummit 2023. UKPF consultant Hugh Blaza considers some of the thought-provoking takeaways from the event.
We’re going to have to rename this event. Yes, it was a ‘summit’ in the G7-style sense that we provided a forum for leading individuals to discuss crucial issues.
But was I alone in thinking that even though we can see the summit of our ambitions, in all its might and beauty, we haven’t even reached base camp yet?
For those unable to attend, Oxford was the theme of the summit, principally the city itself, but also the ways it connects to its wider environment.
Having lived in and around Oxford for the best part of 50 years, I can say with complete confidence that the city is on the brink of unprecedented change, much of it long overdue.
And I can also say with confidence that the people charged with effecting the change are as competent and conscientious as you could wish for.
That extends to the willingness of the city’s managers, in other words the council, to engage with the private sector and to stand up and be counted in a public forum.
That in itself is worthy of note. And Caroline Green, chief executive of the city council, set the scene in a keynote address which succeeded in describing the opportunities and the challenges succinctly and positively. Decisions must be made, even though they will not always be popular.
But is making decisions a kind of arrogance, or is it simply a recognition that the alternative is to deny change, to allow the status quo to subsist, however unsatisfactory and, frankly, antiquated?
‘We can’t carry on not doing anything about it’, according to Tom Bridgman, the city council’s executive director of development, during the discussion over the fraught issue of tackling the congestion and environmental damage caused by Oxford’s traffic.
And encouraging to hear that both rail and bus companies are rising to the challenge to keep people on the move. The Botley Road: short term pain for long term gain when the new rail station arrives.
And yet, with the largest – and depending on your point of view, the most exciting – developments on the horizon for decades what is it, exactly, that the city is seeking to achieve?
Place making. Taking land and providing accommodation for vibrant ideas, businesses and individuals. Making something special. But also ensuring that there are opportunities where they may have been denied in the past.
Engaging with schools to open pupils’ eyes to the variety of skills needed in the jobs market. Building homes in the city for the more disadvantaged (and yes, even in Oxford there are pockets of deprivation) but applying the highest criteria for doing so sustainably.
As Debbie Haynes, carbon reduction & sustainability manager of OX Place and Mish Tullar, the council’s head of corporate strategy, explained, there is no alternative if the city’s target of achieving net zero is to be achieved by 2030 and carbon zero by 2040. And that it is achievable.
Being home to one of the most famous universities in the world inevitably leads to accusations of elitism. And the opportunities for capitalising on the wealth inherent in the colleges abound, in particular with the enthusiasm (not to mention the financial clout) of private investors joining in the action.
But it hasn’t escaped the developers that in a few years’ time, 25 per cent of the workforce will be Gen Z. And with 97 per cent of graduates unable to gain a foot on the housing ladder in Oxford, what – and who – are we building for?
‘It’s complicated’, Anna Strongman, chief executive of Oxford University Developments, confessed. But accommodating not only businesses but the drivers of them and providing the places – including public realm – they want not only to work in, but to live in too, must be achieved.
And with the hard question of earning good salaries not being enough to pay the cost of admission to Oxford city living, it remains unclear (short of, say, help from the bank of mum and dad) as to how.
Development in Oxford has generally been low rise, constrained by the fear of interfering with one of the most famous skylines in the world. Might adding tall buildings provide the space we need more affordably?
It could indeed make the city more affordable but Debbie Dance, director of Oxford Preservation Trust, sounds a note of caution: ‘Oxford is famous for a reason and we need to be very careful about what we do’.
But tall buildings can be attractive and high-rise living may not be so unappealing, particularly among the next generation.
Sadly, space doesn’t allow me to take a deeper dive into the discussions and even on the day, we were only able to scratch the surface. Many thanks to the panellists, the skilful chairs of our sessions and to the attentive and enthusiastic audience. We shall return as we climb higher towards the real summit of our ambition.
Footnote: (with apologies to those panellists I have not mentioned specifically – each of whom made telling and important points), here is the full programme of topics we discussed and who participated.
JOBS FOR ALL
Oxford continues to have significant economic demand and growth but access to the benefits of this growth remains unequal. How can Oxford make the move towards a more inclusive economy where the local workforce can access the benefits and utilise their skills in the city? How can positive outcomes be achieved for the local communities from this growth? More broadly, does a focus on economic growth exacerbate the housing crisis, by creating more demand?
Chair: Sarah Haywood, Managing Director, Advanced Oxford
Panel: Anna Strongman, CEO, Oxford University Developments
Tom Storey, Director, Storey Consulting (Oxford North)
Carolyn Ploszynski, Head of Regen and Economy, Oxford City Council
Liv Thomas, Graduate Surveyor, Savills and Chair of OxProp NextGen
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS!
The need to accommodate Oxford’s workforce has ignited debate about whether we need to build higher and with increased density, especially around the perimeters of Oxford. Is this a viable option given existing planning restrictions and heritage concerns. What should the property community be doing to engage with and influence the Local Plans?
Chair: Rob Allaway, Managing Director, DevComms
Panel: David Butler, Head of Planning, Oxford City Council
Adrian James, Adrian James Architects
Pete Wilder, Property Director Oxford Science Enterprises
Debbie Dance, Director, Oxford Preservation Trust
GREEN HERITAGE: HOW FAR CAN WE GO?
Cambridge’s City councillors recently made a landmark, and controversial, decision to approve the installation of solar panels on the roof of the iconic Grade I Listed King’s College Chapel. With twice the national average of listed buildings, Oxford faces similar complex decisions in order to help combat the climate crisis and meet its 2030 net zero objectives. How will new build fit into the historic environment? Can retrofitting work in the Conservation Areas? How far is Oxford really willing – or able – to go?
Chair: Richard Todd, Bidwells
Panel: Mish Tullar, Head of Corporate Strategy, Oxford City Council
Harriet Waters, Head of Sustainability, University of Oxford
Debbie Haynes, Carbon Reduction & Sustainability Manager OX Place
Chris Pattison, Head of Planning, Bidwells, Oxford
OXFORD IN MOTION
What is the transport vision for Oxford? How will this provide the connections to ensure local residents and visitors can move freely around the city? How will it satisfy the needs and opportunities provided by the business, education and visitor/leisure communities?
Chair: Veronica Reynolds, Milton Park
Panel: Bill Cotton, Corporate Director, Environment and Place, Oxfordshire County Council
Tom Bridgman, Executive Director, Development, Oxford City Council
Luke Marion – Managing Director, Oxford Bus Company
Claire Mahoney – Industry programme director, Greater Oxford Area, Network Rail
Here’s the full list of stories from OxPropSummit 2023:
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