Plans for a new hotel to replace 282-year-old Boswell’s department store in central Oxford, go out for public consultation on Wednesday, July 15 – but what does the city’s professional community think?

Reef Group and Oxford City Council are drawing up a planning application which will retain the shop’s historic frontage while converting it to a modern four-star hotel. Thames Tap consultant Hugh Blaza asks if the city’s key stakeholders and professionals should now come together and consider whether the city centre might be ready for some fresh and radical new ideas.

You have to hand it to Reef; the scheme they’ve proposed for turning the much-loved Boswell’s department store into a four-star hotel is pretty impressive. And there’s no doubt it will accommodate visitors to the city in some style once they start to return.

And yet…

Oxford’s traditional retail areas in the city centre – High Street, Cornmarket, The Golden Cross (the Golden Cross!), Queen Street, Broad Street, George Street – have all suffered a massive double whammy in recent years.

To add to the struggles caused by the decrease in trade from people shopping online, up springs the rejuvenated Westgate Centre.

Unsurprisingly, the voids left as the traditional shops closed have taken some filling. The post-Covid recession we’re all expecting will only add to the woes; how long, for example, can Debenhams survive, let alone the many unique and established traditional traders?

Then there’s Oxford City Council’s significant unmet housing need, so significant that it is looking beyond the city limits for ways of satisfying it. Swathes of green belt land will, in all probability, be sacrificed to meet the demand. I wonder whether the City could be looking a little closer to home.

Walk down Cornmarket and all the other streets I’ve mentioned and look up. Above the shop units are storeys of space.

What are they being used for? Imagine if people lived in them. Imagine these streets empty of cars and buses. Imagine the residents who didn’t work in the city using bikes or rapid and green transport links to get to work on the business and science parks around Oxford.

Isn’t this the way to revive – not to say improve – Oxford’s city centre? Convert the upper floors to residential accommodation and a vibrant urban community would come into being.

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to live in the centre of one of the most beautiful cities in the world? And what a prospect for creating an attractive quarter from what have, for so long, been congested and polluted bus routes or tired shopping drags.

And in addition to providing the much-needed housing, retail opportunities would surely return as the city’s new residents look for places to eat, drink and shop on their doorsteps.

We all know that while online stores may be fine for many things, there comes a time when we want to nip out for a coffee, to leaf through a book or to try on a pair of shoes before we buy.

I’ve always enjoyed visiting cities around the world and I’ve envied the way residential and commercial activities exist side by side and complement each other.

So that’s the challenge, Oxford. Can we, at the very least, bring a group of people together to talk about how we might do it?

Much thought would be needed as to whether considerations such as underlying values, planning requirements and design criteria could be accommodated, and no-one’s suggesting it would be easy. But in this brave new world we’re all talking about, shouldn’t we at least be taking a look?

Off the top of my head, these would be the participants in the debate (with apologies to any others I should have mentioned):

  • The councils (city and county)
  • The landowners or their representatives
  • Architects/urban design consultancies
  • Shopkeepers
  • Chambers of Commerce
  • Historic preservation groups
  • Planning experts
  • Transport planners

Whether or not you fit the bill, if you’re interested in at least exploring the ideas, get in touch. UK Property Forums will then get to work!

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Image by Jpbowen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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