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.
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?
We understand that the five Oxfordshire District Councils and the County Council are jointly preparing a proposal which justifies the devolution of powers from central government, leading to access to significant development funding. The proposal includes the establishment of a combined authority led by an elected Mayor. We believe that it resembles the successful devolution proposal for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
Meanwhile the County Council is also promoting an alternative local government arrangement as the basis for a devolution proposal, which includes the abolition of the existing Councils and the establishment of a single ‘unitary’ Council, possibly with an elected Mayor.
OCS is delighted that both proposals attempt to give the vision and coherence to development planning and management we have been calling for in Oxfordshire ever since we published our Oxford Futures report in 2014.
In a lecture organised by the Society in July last year (follow the link for the report) Professor Robin Hambleton, author of ‘Leading the Inclusive City’ and reports for the Local Government Association, has suggested evaluation criteria that focus on governance. They complement the analyses of financial efficiency and we believe they provide a good basis for a gap analysis. Our plan is to undertake such an analysis to show how far the different proposals go towards satisfying the governance criteria and what the gaps look like. This is the proforma we intend to use. We would be delighted to hear the views of others.
Download the Devolution Gap Analysis proforma.
An article today in The Oxford Mail raises the possibility of creating an integrated transport system for Oxford and the surrounding area, starting with a ‘Swift Rail’ line. This line would connect Kidlington to Oxford and extend to Cowley using the existing branch line. A further extension could go to Abingdon and through to Didcot.
The proposal is being put forward by Nicholas Falk of URBED, with whom Oxford Civic Society has been collaborating for several years. The Society promotes the concept of integrating transport, employment and housing in an overall plan for the County and welcomes these proposals and the discussion that we hope will follow.
The Strategic Housing Market Assessment (SHMA) for Oxfordshire was published in 2014, setting out the county’s housing needs up to 2031. It recognised that Oxford City could not build enough houses to meet its own needs, and called on the surrounding districts to co-operate to meet this ‘unmet need’.
After much discussion and debate Oxford’s unmet need is being included in the Local Plans each district is drawing up. Cherwell District Council has been consulting on its own contribution, set at 4400 new homes, looking at where these homes should be built. Oxford Civic Society’s Planning Group has submitted its comments which the Group believes are consistent with the “smarter growth” philosophy of Oxfordshire Futures.
The response says again that decisions on major developments should be set in the context of an overall spatial plan for the central Oxfordshire, integrating housing, transport and employment. The comments can be summarised as follows, accepting they have to be in the absence of such a plan:
- according to the SHMA’s analysis, Oxford’s unmet need arises mostly from the need for affordable housing rather than from economic growth;
- most district councils seem to accept that that potential development sites might lose their Green Belt status on the basis of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ prevailing in the Oxford area;
- Cherwell DC have identified a large number of potential sites across the District for the additional development;
- as the finally chosen sites are for Oxford’s unmet need it would be sensible if they were close to the city and with good transport links;
- sites outside the Green Belt would be less desirable as long as there are sites within in which can be developed without seriously damaging it. However, if parts of the Green belt are lost new areas should be designated to compensate;
- development of sites either side of the Banbury Road (A4165) north of Cutteslowe, including the North Oxford Golf Course, and some sites on the southern fringe of Kidlington would effectively extend the city and allow improved access from the Northern Gateway to Oxford Parkway station. But such development would potentially close the gap between Kidlington and Oxford;
- sites to the west of Kidlington are close to the A44 with good bus services into the city. A new station at Kidlington would make connections even better, perhaps as part of a SwiftRail or tram-train service;
- Cherwell DC is encouraged to take on a proactive role in the developments – a ‘Master Planner’ – to help capture increases in land value for investment in infrastructure.
The full response is here, with links to the background documentation.
A packed symposium in Oxford’s Kellogg College drew members of the Historic Towns Forum ranging from St Albans to Wells and York, together with a large contingent from Oxford. The aim was to learn from success, and to debate the principles that would lead to sustainable or ‘smarter growth’ that does not outstrip infrastructure capacity. Presentations on Grenoble and Freiburg provided an international dimension, and Nicholas Falk, one of the co-organisers drew out lessons from four other European cities acclaimed by the Academy of Urbanism, including Montpellier and some Dutch examples. Responses from the Leaders of both Oxford City and South Oxfordshire rounded up the event.
There is a video covering the key speakers and main conclusions of the event (use the password ‘staringpeople’), and the full written report of the symposium is available here.
Earlier this year a workshop was held in Oxford to look at the zone around the station known as Oxford Central West (read report). This area is crucial to the future of the city and is perhaps the most extraordinary underdeveloped area of any historic city in the UK. With plans for the redevelopment of the station being promoted and masterplans being announced for Oxpens and Osney Mead, there is a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform the area into a new quarter for the city fit for the 21st century.
There was concern at the workshop that the potential of the area will not be fully exploited unless the various developments are coordinated. Yet there seemed to be no mechanism to do this. A group of urbanists and urban designers therefore resolved to explore a physical vision for the whole of area. This was not intended to challenge any of the proposals currently being developed. Rather the aim was to explore how the various proposals could be joined together to create a coherent urban quarter and better gateway to Oxford.
The 200 acre site is currently a fragmented and largely forgotten part of the city. It is susceptible to flood and sliced up by the railway line, river and canal so that east/west movement is very difficult. Despite its proximity to the centre of Oxford it feels isolated and despite the character of the canal it does not have the appeal of a valued area like Jericho. It should be one of the most valuable parts of the city but the constraints make development difficult and the railway station redevelopment remains unfunded. All of this can potentially be overcome with a coordinated approach. This report sets out a vision for how this could be achieved.
We have produced a brief illustrated summary of the event’s conclusions and a pdf file in the form of a slide presentation which gives a much fuller account of the day’s proceedings. Both can be freely downloaded from the links.