An anti-growth agenda, ‘scary’ AI and Oxfordshire’s struggle to change were among the headlines 230 delegates took away from a day of discussions involving the city’s leading property figures.

Alan Bunce picks out some key, and in some cases concerning, takeaways at OxPropSummit 2024.

Seven debates at this year’s OxPropSummit ranged from how to convince people of the need for growth to how the disadvantaged can start to be included in the county’s success – and included how AI will radically change the property landscape.

The April 17 event at Trinity College picked up on some of the hardest challenges facing the county and included a glimpse of the future many might not want to see. There were many headline takeaways so we’ve chosen one from each session.

 Anti-growth agenda ‘a threat to housing and the economy’

Chair: Jeremy Long, chair of Oxfordshire Inclusive Economy Partnership (OIEP)
Panel: Cllr Susan Brown, leader of Oxford City Council and chair of Fast Growing Cities
Anna Strongman, chief executive of Oxford University Development
Laura Ludlow, principal associate for Mills & Reeve

An anti-growth agenda across Oxfordshire could risk the county’s ability to meet its economic targets, according to the leader of Oxford City Council.

Speaking at the opening session on Fast Growing Cities, Cllr Susan Brown told 230 delegates at OxPropSummit that many people in Oxford and Oxfordshire did not see the benefits of growth, only the disbenefits.

The vast majority of people, she said, cannot afford a house.

She told delegates: “There is an anti-growth agenda in the city and the county that is putting at risk the delivery of housing we need to meet economic forecasts for the county.

“This is a point I make frequently to people but it’s not always met with a great reception. We cannot turn the economy off, even if we wanted to. So, turning our backs on housing need will only exacerbate our housing crisis.

“I’m hopeful that if we have a change of Government there will be a fresh look at the need to co-operate in housing terms, the need for more genuinely affordable housing and the need to review Green Belt on a regular basis.”

Cllr Brown, who chairs the Fast Growth Cities group which includes Oxford, Cambridge, Peterborough, Swindon and Milton Keynes, explained how its five key aims – devolution, utilities infrastructure investment, inclusive growth and social mobility, housing and planning and sustainability – line up with the needs of Oxford.

  1. Devolution, she said, could allow Oxford to introduce a tourism tax and could help fast-track major projects.
  2. Oxford’s water and electricity capacity threaten to restrain growth.
  3. The city’s issues of inclusive growth and social mobility are illustrated by having the UK’s biggest gap between its richest and poorest areas. Headington has the highest number of PhDs in the country, while next door Barton has very poor life expectancy and high levels of depravation and poverty.
  4. She demonstrated how housing and planning was causing long daily commutes for people in some of the city’s hospitals including from beyond Birmingham and Bournemouth. She also wants restrictions on short-term letting in the city.
  5. Local area energy planning, under way in Oxford, is one way the city continues to lead on sustainability.

World changing county struggles to change itself

Chair: Richard Venables: OIEP charter signatory
Speakers: Paul Roberts, chief executive of Aspire Oxfordshire
Tom Storey, founder of Storey Consulting which works with Oxford North
Panel: Jeremy Long, chair of OIEP
Martin Reeves, chief executive of Oxfordshire County Council

Oxfordshire changes the world for the better every single day but struggles to change itself, OxPropSummit delegates were told by the county council’s chief executive.

In a passionate monologue during the session on Inclusive Growth, Martin Reeves, formerly chief executive of Coventry City Council, identified leadership as central to the cause of including the poorest in Oxfordshire’s success.

He said the essential toolkit for inclusion and creating a sense of place should include a telescope, microscope and stethoscope – the telescope to look ahead, the microscope for the detail and the stethoscope to feel the heartbeat.

He said: “How can you feel the heartbeat of our place because ultimately that’s what differentiates us, because across the world there are other economies that could argue they’ve got the same sector growth potential that we have?

“What they have not got is this sense of history and our provenance and the fact that we can do something that marks us out as being special, not just within a county, the country or within the globe.

“I think the story that will start to be told is Oxfordshire changes the better every single day – fact. But it struggles to change itself.”

Mr Reeves spoke after Paul Roberts, chief executive of Aspire Oxfordshire, which works to tackle homelessness and poverty in the county, had painted a stark picture of the numbers of people missing out on the city’s prosperity.

Out of 3,300 households on the social housing register in Oxford, only 187 social properties were let last year.

The city has seen a 115 per cent rise in households in temporary accommodation to 220.

Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers are in the city including 200 who are housed at the Kassam hotel.

“They are all seeking affordable housing,” he said.

Transformational change in commuter choices

Chair: Sarah Haywood, managing director of Advanced Oxford
Speaker: Elizabeth Paris, chair of Didcot Powerhouse Fund
Panel: Gus Wiseman, global head of investor relations for the Department for Business and Trade
Nigel Tipple, board member, Oxford-Cambridge Supercluster Board and chief executive of OxLEP
Philip Campbell, commercial director of MEPC Milton Park

The share of people commuting to Milton Park in single occupancy cars dropped below 50 per cent, thanks to a partnership with Thames Travel and the county council.

In a debate on the Power of Partnerships, Philip Campbell, commercial director of the park, said a decision to change the way a bus service running between Didcot station and Milton Park was supported, transformed many people’s travel choices.

“We’d always had a bus service at Milton Park and it was a registered service which ran back and forward to the station. Although it was registered, it was a kind of private service.

“During the pandemic we took the decision to change that model and move to a ‘subsidising the local bus service’ model with the support of the county council and that has been transformational in our mission to reduce single vehicle occupancy.

“We do a travel survey every year in October and our last transport survey last October revealed that, for the first time ever, we’d reduced modal share – so that’s people travelling to Milton Park in single car occupancy – to below 50 per cent, so that was absolutely fantastic.”

Nigel Tipple, chief executive of OxLEP, said a partnership between the Oxfordshire Growth Board and Homes England has helped enable infrastructure.

“For me, partnerships are about trust, they’re about shared commitment and ambition and they’re about taking some really tough decisions and not always agreeing.

“And at a pan-regional level it’s about identifying what you can agree on, not what you can’t.”

Gus Wiseman, from the Department for Business and Trade argued that a new real estate cycle is beginning. And he offered a rough tally of Oxfordshire’s real estate.

He said: “There’s about five trillion dollars of assets under management that is represented within a 20-mile radius of here. It is absolutely extraordinary achievement and it shows that capital is not just on the doorstep of Oxford and Oxfordshire, but already within Oxford and Oxfordshire.”

‘Property industry is not ready for AI’

Chair: Matthew Battle, managing director of UK Property Forums
Speaker: Matt Sharp, chief digital officer for RLB
Panel: Will Richmond-Coggan, partner at Freeths

Large parts of the property industry are not yet ready for AI, delegates heard at Wednesday’s OxPropSummit.

In a powerful presentation on what lies ahead, Matt Sharp, chief digital officer for RLB, explained how time sheets, expenses, meeting reports will be tasks easily carried out by AI.

As it learns, more and more tasks will be taken on as companies structure their data in a way AI can read it.

But he warned: “Large sections of our industry are not yet ready. Have they got the levels of investment at the moment. Are they structured in their data, can they see the use cases, have they done the risk assessments?

“There are large parts of our industry not yet thinking about it, not yet adopting it properly, not yet starting to take advantage of the tools that are coming into the market.”

However, both he and Will Richmond-Coggan, partner at Freeths, highlighted risks of publicly available AI tools allowing private data being made available to other users.

But Mr Richmond-Coggan also had a warning about more secure situations such as when a firm uses its own AI.

He said: “Even when you use a tool that has been manufactured by a company and made available just for you, you’re kidding yourself if you think they’re not going to be taking your data and using it themselves to build the next iteration of their model, potentially one that can do some of the stuff that you can do.”

Matt Sharp, who had had to retrain to learn AI, admitted to finding one warning from his lecturer particularly concerning.

He said: “Most scary to me, the head of computer science and lecturer on my course, he’s the expert and he said AI will be conscious AI by 2030.

“It knows what it is and will be able to choose what it learns and how it applies it, which is a really interesting advancement of this AI technology.

“It’s about how we manage it, how we control it, how we make the best of it for our industry and our organisations.”

‘Culture of work scenario is changing’

Chair: Emily Slupek, partner, built environment for Bidwells
Speakers: Sue Foxley, head of research for Bidwells
Pino Catalano, lead designer for Morgan Lovell
Panel: Monika Zemla, director – leasing & business development director for ARC Harwell Campus
Colin Brown, director development for Mission Street
Darryl Chen, partner & urban design sector for Hawkins Brown Architects

The thinking behind Mission Steet’s two lab developments in Botley Road, Oxford were explored with a panel discussing innovation development.

After a presentation by Sue Foxley from Bidwells debate centred on design of innovation space.

Colin Brown, director development for Mission Street, pointed to changing demographics and a cultural shift that is bringing science closer to city centres.

He said: “One of the things we try to do in any geography that we go into and want to invest and develop in, is to understand our place in the wider ecosystem.

“Where are really clever people doing really clever stuff and where do they want to do it?

“Sue (Foxley) pointed out, earlier, some of the real fundamentals around the growth in demand for proximity to public transport, demand from people wanting to be close to city centres and the city centre amenity, rather than potentially on the outskirts. And even the changing demographic of the employees of knowledge intensive businesses has led to quite a significant cultural shift in the way that people want to work.

“If you’re a mathematician, an engineer or an artist, you might find yourself working in a life sciences business. If you have a PhD in microbiology, you could just as easily get a job at AstraZeneca as Google or Amazon in some deep tech think tank.

“Therefore, the cultural scenario where teccies have got cool buildings in the city centre and scientists have got pretty bland ones in fields on the outskirts of the city, are changing.

“I think we are all responding to that in the way that (business) parks are creating better amenity and in the way that developers like Mission Street are trying to invest and bring some of these knowledge intensive businesses towards the city centre where a lot of people really want to be.”

That, he said, improves employment choices and ability to recruit from further afield and eases pressure on housing stock in Oxford.

Global investment prospectus to launch next month

Chair: Rob Allaway, managing director of Dev Comms
Panel: Placi Espejo, director of investment and innovation for the Oxford-Cambridge Pan Regional Partnership
Nigel Tipple, board member of Oxford-Cambridge Supercluster Board and OxLEP chief executive
Sebastian Johnson, director of ecosystems for ARC

Representatives from the Oxford-Cambridge Pan Regional Partnership will be launching an international prospectus for the region at this year’s UKREiiF in May.

Placi Espejo, director of investment and innovation for the partnership, told delegates at OxPropSummit, that a ‘network of networks’ will be launched to bring about collaboration when the launch is held at the partnership’s own pavilion at the event in Leeds.

She said: “It’s going to showcase a number of very exciting investment propositions for the global investment audience.

“We are also making it happen at an innovation network of networks  where we are bringing together 40 – 50 networks and clusters, focussed on innovation from smart technologies, future mobility, life sciences, quantum (computing), you name it, we are bringing them together to create the space and serendipity of opportunity for them to talk to each other.

“We were told by these networks and clusters that they haven’t go the time and the capacity of resources to do it themselves so we are bringing them together to create that colouration piece so they can cascade and make that colouration happen for their own members.”

She said she will then be seeking to get potential overseas investors to meet with the Department for Business and Trade.

Delegates also learned of a new project under the partnership’s sustainability objectives. A pilot scheme is to be launched to work with farmers to identify unused land that can be used for purposes of biodiversity.

£20m need to lobby ministers for Cowley branch line

Chair: Hugh Blaza, consultant for UK Property Forums
Panel: Tom Bridgman, executive director – development for Oxford City Council
Helen Horne, managing director of OX Place
Bill Cotton, director of environment & place for Oxfordshire County Council
Rory Maw, chief executive of The Oxford Science Park (TOSP)

Around £20 million is needed to fund a lobbying effort to help make Oxford’s long-needed Cowley branch line reopening to become a reality.

Tom Bridgman, executive director – development for Oxford City Council, told OxPropSummit delegates the £100m+ scheme is currently unfunded but, in addition to more than £4 CIL money, raised from major landowners, TOSP, Oxford Business Park and the Ellison Institute – towards its business case, £20m will be needed to persuade ministers of its importance.

He said: “We think, just to get central Government interested in a discussion, we need probably around £20m worth of local funding. “That’s excluding the £4m we have already raised. That’s a huge ask and I guess a significant chunk of that will have to come from developer contributions, it can’t just come from the science park and the business park.

“It has to come from other developers, it can’t just come on the coat tails of three landowners.

“So working with the county, we are going to be publishing a document which sets out how we will look to negotiate s106 to deliver the Cowley branch line,

“We hope we are pushing at an open door with the development community because it’s a win-win. We hope we are not going to struggle to secure the funds.

“We will still need more money and we will look at that but we need to understand this is a huge job of work.

“I see it as something the city, with the county, will lead on but we are not going to give up because of the funding gap. We need a shovel ready scheme that we can take to central Government.”

He said one advantage the scheme, which will connect to East West Rail, has is it can be delivered within a single Parliamentary cycle.

Images from the day can be seen here.

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