Oxford city centre faces a possible vacancy rate of more than 20 per cent in its retail space within nine months, according to one of the city’s leading property agents.

Richard Venables, director of VSL & Partners and board member at Experience Oxfordshire, was speaking in the first online UK Prop Social event on Thursday, May 21, Building a Bridge to a Better Oxford.

Asked how the High Street can be re-engaged, Mr Venables said: “We were hit by the perfect storm really a couple of years ago. This new thing, the Westgate (shopping centre), landed like a spaceship and changed things overnight in 2017.

“Then we had consumer confidence going, then we had the internet coming in and we’ve seen retail rents change dramatically over the last few of years.

“Some areas have been supported by the increase in tourism and we were doing well. And as we know from all the buses parked in St Giles, there were a lot of people coming for day trips here.

“But I think now we will see a significant amount of vacancy coming forward. I think we are at about nine per cent vacancy in our retail space in the city at the moment. My prediction is that probably, within six to nine months, we could see that going up to 20 per cent, maybe a bit more, so doubling.

“And I think landlords have to be flexible with their existing tenants. They’re going to have to be flexible with their new tenants. They are going to have to give very soft deals or very temporary deal – pop-up shops – but the planning system also needs to be flexible and allow different uses in there.

“I think market forces will determine it and if we have regimes that are restrictive it will further exacerbate the problem. And I think we’ve almost got to unlock the boundaries of the city and let the market find its place.”

The panel was asked to consider how the pandemic will alter the course of future development in both the county and the city.

Harriet Waters, head of sustainability at the University of Oxford, started the debate on the lockdown legacy.

She said: “There have been some amazing things happening during lockdown. We have seen vast improvements in air quality for the city, a huge reduction in vehicle traffic, an increased uptake in cycling and a massive keenness for people to lead more sustainable lives.

Google, she said, has reported a 4,000 per cent increase in searches around sustainable living. And she summarised her picture of the way forward in terms of four ‘A’s.

She said: “Those learnings we’ve all gone through, what can we aspire to? Can we aspire to this much better level of air quality in Oxford?

“What can we adapt? Paper use isn’t the first thing you might think of but I’ve heard the university is quoting £100,000 a month saving in paper use. How can we transfer that kind of learning in the future world?

“What are you willing to adopt? This willingness to use different platforms – Zoom, Teams and Demio. These are things that we’ve talked about for so long but haven’t really been adopted. Can we make sure they are a permanent feature of our future life?

“And what do we want to abandon? I’m sure a lot of other people will agree that after the pandemic, we would not want to mix home schooling with working from home.”

Rachel Dickie, interim chief executive of the Oxford University Development, a £4 billion joint venture with L&G to deliver affordable graduate accommodation, subsidised staff accommodation and innovation districts where the university, corporate businesses and start ups can mix, said that deal is still on track.

She said: “Being a new business and then being plunged into this scenario has been strange and challenging but, because we are at this early stage, the focus has been on building teams to deliver these schemes.

“We are focused on pre-planning. We are at least a year away from starting on-site so we haven’t had the challenges others have had and we are backed by two really long-term investors who believe that, as with other cycles, we will ride this one.”

Mr Venables described modern Oxford as a divided place with ‘fantastic riches’ along with being one of the most deprived in the UK.

He said: “If I had one wish it would be to see this inequality tackled to really make a difference to this city.”

Laura Peacock, innovation manager (communities) for Oxfordshire County Council, said, as a result of the pandemic, more people want the data the IHub, which she manages, produces.

She went on: “If we are looking to change to reprioritise how we use the space in Oxford and Oxfordshire, you need to understand how users are using the space so data and modelling is really important.

“What you need, in order to understand what a successful place is, is to understand how people are using the city. That’s where our role comes in.”

She said it is now important to redefining what success means which she argued, should now include the importance of wellbeing.

A new sustainability strategy is being worked on by the university and Harriet Waters told the meeting it has ambitious targets.

One of those is how carbon emissions can be cut when the university relies upon many overseas students.

She said: “The strategy is not going to be saying ‘we are going to stop taking international students’.

“It’s going to be saying ‘it’s part of our business model to take international students but what do we do to make up for that impact we have?’”

The event raised £250 for NHS Charities Together from donations included in the ticket price. 

Hannah Smart from Edge Urban Design won a bottle of champagne for the best question posted online during the session. The prize was donated by Freixenet.

Guests who took part in the session voted on three questions about Oxford. These are the results:

Q1: Should we encourage lightweight electric trams in Oxford? 44 responses (77 per cent  = Yes, 23 per cent = No) Q2: Should we close more roads to traffic? (73 per cent = Yes, 27 per cent = No) Q3: Should density levels increase in Oxford? 23 responses (65 per cent = Yes, 35 per cent = No).

Image (clockwise from top left): Harriet Waters, Laura Peacock, Richard Venables, Rachel Dickie with Matthew Battle, managing director of UK Property Forums and meeting host, centre.

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