Oxford Futures 1

31 January 2013


What kind of city do we want Oxford to be in the future? Do we want it to grow and change or to resist both? Can we sustain growth in our congested area without compromising the very qualities that make Oxford so special? Seventy people attended our Oxford Futures seminar, held in the Town Hall on 17 January, to open up a debate on these issues.

Introducing the theme, our Chairman Peter Thompson stressed the vital importance of thinking about the future, given the need to respond to the challenges – a changing economy, housing shortages, climate change and energy security among them. Crucially we need to work together to solve the issues.

A strong local economy but …

Dave Valler, an economist from Oxford Brookes University, drew conclusions from his work for the City and County on Oxford’s economic position. While the local economy has been growing, it is only at the national average and has been outstripped by Berkshire and Cambridge on factors such as income per head and inward investment. Oxford has great strengths in health and education but it may be vulnerable from so many jobs being in the public sector, and incomes are low in relation to house prices. Hence it is vital to realise the full potential of the ‘knowledge economy’, not least by acknowledging the need to link economic ‘clusters’ by addressing transport issues. The fundamental question ‘should Oxford grow?’ needs to be asked, not avoided.

The City’s strategy

David Edwards, Executive Director at Oxford City Council, explained the City’s strategy for planned economic growth. Oxford is in competition with other cities and has severe problems with its infrastructure. Hence it is important to plan where future jobs and homes will go, and how people are going to travel between them. At present many workers live outside the city, yet many commute to the city edges not the centre, making it a challenge to offer public transport.

David Edwards
David Edwards

He explained why the bid to government under the City Deals involved growing a ‘knowledge spine’, connecting up a number of sites. He also acknowledged the need to improve the public realm and referred to the new opportunities at Oxford Station, Oxpens and the Westgate development. The new rail link to London via Bicester and the electrification of the current line will bring immense opportunities. While hundreds of new homes are planned for Barton, there are still real problems in making housing affordable for would-be residents..

Lessons from Europe

Nicholas Falk from URBED, one of the promoters of the seminar, used examples from comparable cities to show how growth and infrastructure can be joined together to produce smarter results. He cited Cambridge where the £150 million investment in fast busways was starting to pay off with plans for some 20,000 homes along the route.

Nicholas Falk
Nicholas Falk

Those who had gone from Oxford to learn from new Dutch settlements were impressed by how easy it was to get around on foot or bike, and how cars took second place. Fast growing historic cities like Freiburg, Montpellier and Copenhagen have kept car use down by using carefully planned urban extensions to boost their appeals as places to live and visit, and make modern rapid transit pay for itself. Success depended on agreeing a spatial and investment plan for the wider travel to work area, ensuring new development and infrastructure were joined up, and having an agency or joint ventures that could provide the necessary continuity, and hence confidence that private investors look for.

A strategy for transport

Peter Headicar, transport specialist at Oxford Brookes University and member of our Transport Group, warned that overreliance on growth in peripheral towns such as Bicester was simply adding to the problems of journeys to work, as many people feel that cars are the only viable option. He showed how a ‘step change’ could be achieved through seven measures – enhancing local rail services, some form of rapid transit, better interchange hubs, shuttle links, integrated travel information and ticketing systems, workplace travel plans, and changes in the funding arrangements, including ‘congestion’ charging in the city.

In Peter’s view, the details were less important than having an agreed strategy for transport, which might take up some of the technological breakthroughs that are being made in Oxford, such as electric bikes.

Tackling climate change

Peter Thompson addressed the vital need to cut carbon emissions and switch to renewable sources of energy. New development could help Oxford play a role in showing the way forward. He recommended David MacKay’s freely available book “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” which explains the urgency of adopting a range of actions, including green power, to meet Britain’s future energy needs.
Wendy Twist from the Oxford Low Carbon Hub showed how women were taking the lead in different parts of Oxfordshire, responding to visible threats like flooding. Over 60 active groups have undertaken projects such as the largest solar panel arrays on schools and encouraged communities to take advantage of the Green Deal scheme for upgrading poorly insulated homes. Experience in Wallingford suggested annual household savings of £250 and Barton residents have shown interest in the scheme. A grant of £1.2 million will help communities develop schemes to the point where they are ‘investment ready’.

Wendy Twist
Wendy Twist

Tapping into community or social enterprises offered a practical way of changing behaviour, and ultimately attitudes. And many of these grassroots projects help in building social capital. Read more about the Hub at www.lowcarbonhub.org

Developing local communities

Van Coulter, Councillor for Barton and a member of Oxford City’s Cabinet, highlighted the contrasts between those living in Barton and in the city as a whole, particularly in educational attainment, income levels and home ownership. With the population there likely to increase by a third, it was vital to engage local people and ensure their voices are heard. Bodies like the Low Carbon Hub had a major role to play in tackling fuel poverty.

Vice President Tony Joyce said that the nation may be looking to Oxford to boost prosperity, but the city needs the resources to do this properly so that those who work in the knowledge economy can reach their jobs without depending on cars. He cited three very successful communities – Wolvercote, Jericho and Headington – which while very different in history and physical character, shared a strong sense of identity and community. He thought that the wide social mix and role played by primary schools and local clubs and associations were key to this success. The challenge is to replicate the success of these communities elsewhere.

The need for vision

Summing up, John Glasson, Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes, said the City now needs to aim higher with a clear vision of what it aspires to. We must consider how to develop planning policies that can integrate housing, transport and economic development. Green Belt policies need serious reconsideration. New stations create new opportunities for housing and employment. We could push for Oxford to become a ‘solar city’ where we’re known for renewable energy. But a key issue is how we align our institutions – only if we speak with one, powerful voice will we get the ear of government. He cited how Cambridge Futures had become a forum for the discussion of ideas, while ‘Cambridge2You’ is now successfully using promotional techniques from Silicon Valley.

John Glasson
John Glasson

The debate starts here …

A member of the audience questioned whether growth was the right goal and whether it would deliver a better quality of life. Our speakers all noted that change is unpredictable but inevitable and that it must be managed effectively to ensure the prosperity on which all our futures depend.

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