The future of the city of Oxford cannot be separated from that of the wider surrounding area from where thousands of people travel in daily to work, shop and enjoy the city’s many cultural attractions. While Oxford’s nationally important knowledge-based economy grows, space to house the people who work in and support it is shrinking. Oxford is part of the Central Oxfordshire city-region, and planning for development must be on this basis. This is the theme of Oxfordshire Futures.
This article summarises the findings of an Oxford Civic Society study group which visited Cambridge in spring 2016 to find out what Oxford could learn about planning and development.The group concluded that Cambridge’s success story has much to teach us – about the role of local government, the contribution of the university and the dedication of key individuals committed to finding a shared vision.
Much has been made of the way in which the city of Cambridge and its region has excelled at attracting research-led investment, much of it associated with the university, and employment growth. A success story that has evolved over 50 years has crucially seen the creation of essential infrastructure too, including housing provision. The city of Oxford and its region has made slower progress. What then can Cambridge teach us?
Having reviewed the findings of an Oxford Innovation Engine ‘business oriented’ delegation to Cambridge in 2014, Oxford Civic Society (OCS) decided to send its own, more ‘citizen oriented’ mission to Cambridge in spring 2016. The aim was to consider what has been working in Cambridge that could or could not be applied in Oxford.
The differences between the two cities were clear:
- Cambridge University had been able to inspire a collective vision, to speak with a single university voice, to engage with the local
authorities and to be instrumental in influencing development across the city-region;
- despite fragmentation of development planning and management responsibilities across several local authorities, a collective will enabled working together to create compatible and integrated development plans to achieve the vision;
- public and community opposition to development was muted – perhaps because of a relatively less-sensitive environment, perhaps because of better engagement and understanding;
- the management of development planning has been placed in the hands of high-calibre individuals, committed to delivering a real vision of the future of the whole city region.
Some things are similar however. Cambridge and its region has just as big a problem with housing availability and affordability as the Oxford region and equally big problems with traffic congestion.
A different policy context
The OCS delegation noted that it is only partially helpful to look at the way Cambridge has enjoyed alignment of development stakeholders to achieve a consensus vision of growth. The national policy context now is very different to the context that existed when Cambridge was planting the seeds of alignment so long ago.
Since the coalition government of 2010 we now have a central government-driven set of ‘localism’ policies which, in Oxfordshire, constrain the alignment of the parties involved:
- there is a prevailing leadership stasis which is at least partially a product of entrenched district and city party-political allegiances. This is evident in the significant problems with allocation of the city’s unmet housing need in the neighbouring districts, Green Belt management and differing views on the justification for Oxfordshire’s economic growth;
- the strategic regional and county development planning mechanisms which existed in the early days of the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ and which facilitated alignment, no longer exist. ‘Localism’ has led to reliance on a ‘Duty to Cooperate’ between local authorities for strategic planning that has proved to be ineffective in many areas, especially in Oxfordshire;
- separated spatial planning at district/city level and transport planning at county level is a continuing major development constraint.
This could be a very rare opportunity to create a governance structure within Oxfordshire which enables leadership, transparency, efficiency, collaboration with the wider community and with the business community. These are all vital if we are to achieve the consensus vision of the future of Oxfordshire that is currently lacking.
However this great opportunity is at risk of not being seized locally. The spectacle of the Oxfordshire district councils and the County Council preparing devolution bids in ompetition with each other was profoundly disappointing. This stance can only be compared unfavourably with Cambridge which for some years has collectively known where it wants to go, recognised the difficulties and has worked hard collaboratively to achieve its ambitions.
Brexit and its implications
The Brexit vote has led to greater uncertainty and may mean loss of European funds for regional development and scientific research. It is likely to reduce some of the region’s comparative advantages thus heightening the importance of those which remain. More than ever, the Oxford city-region must contribute as much as it can to the national economy.
Oxford/Oxfordshire must innovate now because time has been lost and jobs and private investment could disappear in the aftermath of Brexit. In particular the public sector contribution to science-led growth is already constrained by lack of public resources rather than lack of public will. Both Oxford and Cambridge city-regions will need to be pursuing public-private partnerships to ensure adequate infrastructure support.
OCS concludes that a shared vision or ambition for growth is vital. Lack of vision is partially a lack of civic leadership, which we highlighted in our 2014 Oxford Futures report. One of our recommendations to deal with this problem was to introduce an Oxford Futures Commission which could act as a catalyst for the development of a vision around which a consensus could be built. Such a Futures Commission could be an integrated feature of devolved local government in Oxfordshire.
Similarly, OCS recommended Development Forums which would help to ensure the collaboration of the wider community and business community in more local (e.g. district) development decisions. These could also be integrated into devolved local government in Oxfordshire.
Both of these recommendations would help to ensure a more adequate response to public and community opposition to development which is evident in Oxford and its region to an extent not evident in Cambridge and its region. Collaboration with the wider community would allow for more effective debate on the justification for economic growth and its environmental and social implications. It would enable consensus to be achieved on sustainable developments.
OCS also hopes that the University of Oxford will significantly contribute to the vision and consensus building with an up-to-date and clear strategy for its science-led business development. Successful progress requires nothing less.
On 14 March 2017, 11 days after ‘Better Oxfordshire’ was published, Oxfordshire CC’s Cabinet met to decide whether to submit their proposal to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. This despite the opposition of the City Council and two District Councils – Cherwell and West Oxfordshire.
Members of the public are allowed a few minutes to address the Cabinet. Ian Green a member of Oxford Civic Society’s Executive Committee and Chairman of the Oxfordshire Futures group spoke on our behalf as follows:
Councillor Hudspeth and Cabinet members – thank you for this opportunity to make a statement.
I am speaking on behalf of the Oxford Civic Society and its associated Oxfordshire Futures Group.
We thoroughly reviewed the ‘One Oxfordshire’ proposal and submitted our detailed comments in response to the County’s request. We have also reviewed the ‘Better Oxfordshire’ proposal and have submitted comments.
Our review of the more recent proposal leads us to the same conclusion we reached after reviewing the first draft: the proposal is not ready for public consultation and is certainly not ready for submission to central government
- The overall governance arrangements which will replace the existing district and city councils remain too vague and it is not possible to assess how the reorganisation will revitalise local democracy and improve service delivery and value. We doubt that the proposal will strengthen accountable leadership.
- The proposal for the governance arrangements for the City of Oxford do not seem to take into account its crucial economic role in the county and the complexity of the city’s economic, social and environmental challenges. But the proposal is too vague to enable an assessment of its impact on city management effectiveness.
- Not enough evidence is drawn from governance arrangements made or being made in comparable contexts – and some of the evidence cited is of doubtful value as the contexts are not comparable (Salisbury for example) or not fully explained (Wiltshire and the separation of Swindon from Wiltshire). There is no mention of Cambridgeshire.
The Secretary of State is interested in workable governance arrangements which will deliver better local service delivery, greater value for money, stronger and more accountable leadership and significant cost savings.
A proposal which is not fully thought through and which is supported by only 3 of the 6 local authorities comprising Oxfordshire does not demonstrate the capacity to deliver these.
We very much hope that the Cabinet will decide that more efforts to achieve a consensus are needed and that a submission to the Secretary of State at this stage is premature.
We hope that consensus within Oxfordshire can be achieved and with constructive collaboration governance arrangements can be agreed which will enable Oxfordshire to contribute more effectively to the national economy and to efficiently provide ever improving quality of life for all its residents, workers and visitors.
To our regret the Cabinet, none of whose members represents a division within Oxford city, decided to go ahead and send ‘Better Oxfordshire’ to the government for approval.
Three days after consultation on ‘One Oxfordshire’ closed the County published ‘Better Oxfordshire‘, a 148-page revised proposal for a unitary council. Despite giving some extra details the new version does not address most of the points we raised, and is certainly not ready for submission to the Secretary of State. This is the text of a letter we sent to County and supporting District leaders on 10 March.
For the attention of: Leaders Oxfordshire County Council, Vale of White Horse District Council and South Oxfordshire District Council.
cc Leaders of Oxford City Council, West Oxfordshire District Council, Cherwell District Council and Andrew Smith MP, John Howell MP, Nicola Blackwood MP, Ed Vaizey MP, Victoria Prentis MP, Robert Courts MP
Dear Councillors Hudspeth, Barber and Cotton,
Oxford Civic Society provided comments on the draft of the One Oxfordshire proposal on February 28th 2017 along with an attachment which was a matrix assessing the proposal against a number of governance criteria (differing slightly from the criteria used by yourselves). Receipt of our comments was acknowledged by the County on February 28th.
On March 3rd a revised draft proposal ‘Better Oxfordshire’ was published. In particular this revised proposal discusses in more detail local representation and arrangements to formulate proposals for Oxford city governance. The revised proposal also includes opinion poll results which purport to show significant support for the single authority concept (rather than the full One Oxfordshire proposal) and with no survey methods readily available for scrutiny.
We were surprised to see the revised proposal issued so quickly and having reviewed it in detail it is clear that it was in preparation long before the closing date of the consultation on the first draft. It is perhaps for this reason that it fails to address most of the points made in our response to the consultation.
Our detailed review of the revised proposal leads us to the same conclusion we reached after reviewing the first draft: the revised proposal is not yet ready for consultation and is certainly not ready for submission to the Secretary of State, DCLG. Key deficiencies are that the proposed overall governance arrangements remain too vague, that there are no firm proposals for the governance arrangements for the City of Oxford and that not enough evidence is drawn from governance arrangements made or being made elsewhere in comparable contexts.
We hope that at the County Council Cabinet meeting on March 14th the decision will be taken to put more detailed thinking into the proposal and to re-engage the citizens of Oxfordshire with another consultation. We also very much hope that the proposal is not submitted to the Secretary of State at the end of this month as planned. We suggest that no matter what the opinion poll suggests, it is the case that 2 District Councils and the City Council are not on board. Submission of a proposal with only partial support from the local authorities comprising Oxfordshire could embarrass the Secretary of State who is only interested in workable governance arrangements which will deliver better local service delivery, greater value for money, stronger and more accountable leadership and significant cost savings. A proposal supported by only 3 of the 6 local authorities comprising Oxfordshire does not demonstrate the capacity to deliver these.
This is a summary of our comments on Oxfordshire County Council’s “One Oxfordshire” proposals for a single unitary authority to run all local services in the county. You can read our full submission here.
These comments should be read together with our “Gap Analysis”. The competing consultants’ reports commissioned by the County and the City/Districts focused almost exclusively on financial efficiency. The Gap Analysis looks instead at issues of governance, accountability, civic engagement and democratic processes.
Our overall conclusion on the County’s proposals is that they are fatally incomplete. The problems of governance in Oxfordshire are not addressed, and there is no attempt to look at and learn from how other counties (e.g. Cambridgeshire, Wiltshire) have tackled these issues.
The effect of replacing District Councils with Area Boards is not explored in enough detail. In the special case of Oxford City, the proposal is silent on how a unitary authority would protect or enhance the City’s nationally important economic prosperity, academic excellence and world-class heritage.
We suggested a number of questions and issues that need answers before One Oxfordshire can be taken further. This is a selection:
- The proposals do not include an elected Mayor, but with the right powers a Mayor might be able to achieve a coherent vision which the dissenting councils have failed to do.
- How many local councillors would there be? What areas would they represent? How would those areas be decided – by population, geography, the size of their economy?
- What would the powers and responsibilities of the Area Boards be? How many would there be and how would their boundaries be drawn?
- Similarly, how would Parish Councils, Town Councils and unparished areas be involved? Would they welcome more powers and do they have the capability to use them wisely?
- Public engagement with the LEP and Growth Board is currently weak or absent. How will the One Oxfordshire model improve this?
We strongly suggest it would be a mistake if two competing proposals – One Oxfordshire from the county and two districts, and an alternative from the other two districts and the city – went forward to central government. The failure to reach a consensus is damaging Oxfordshire’s credibility as somewhere worthy of investment, and is a constraint on efforts to address the serious issues of deprivation or to improve the quality of life for all its residents.
In our previous post about the competing proposals for restructuring local government in Oxfordshire we explained we were preparing a Gap Analysis. The aim is to complement the financial focus of the earlier consultants’ studies with an analysis of how well the proposals contribute to better and more effective governance and democratic processes.
We have now released this analysis, which can be freely downloaded here.
Matt Oliver’s article in last Monday’s Oxford Mail is hugely significant, because it highlights so many threads coming together.
It has been assessed that the county needs around 100,000 new homes by 2031, many for commuters working in the city region. The new Westgate Centre opens this autumn, and its success depends on attracting several million additional visitors each year.
So demand for travel will increase. Past solutions of more and bigger roads are unacceptable – people are going to have to get out of their cars. But the bus services are at near-saturation at peak times, and buses are hugely damaging to the city’s historic environment.
Chiltern Railways’ connection into Oxford Central Station demonstrates the potential for an Oxford Metro. The journey from Bicester to Oxford city centre on the new service takes only around 14 minutes, for a return fare of as little as £3.10. A demonstration train to Cowley did indeed run in 2014 – two temporary stations were built and the feasibility of a Cowley-to-the-city-centre service was obvious.
But a north-south ‘Spine Line’, running in the existing rail corridor from North Kidlington to Milton Park, also offers huge potential. These are projects which could be done NOW.
Building an Oxford Metro means recognising that public transport is the ‘skeleton’ on which all development should be planned. Both current Oxfordshire re-organisation proposals talk of integrated strategic planning, so we are getting there.
The biggest argument against such a system is cost. But with the enormous increase in land values when agricultural sites are scheduled for development, there should be hundreds of millions of pounds which could be tapped. Currently this land-value uplift simply benefits the landowner, but this may change soon.
So, the pieces are in place; do we have the leadership to deliver?