As the least affordable city in the UK, Oxford and its county undoubtedly have an urgent need for new and affordable housing, in part due to its popularity as a hub for business and innovation. Delivering homes to meet the demand is a challenge widely acknowledged by decision-makers in Oxfordshire, yet delivery is still limited.
There have been major steps forward in recent years. After the revocation of the regional plans and funding in 2012, you would have been thought of as mad if you believed that in just five years’ time there would be strategies to replace this tier of strategic planning. The Oxfordshire authorities have made steps forward with these joint ambitions starting with the economically-led SHMA in 2014, which was followed up by the Strategic Economic Plan and collaborative infrastructure plans and bids across the public and private sectors.
So what solutions could help speed up delivery on the ground? Delivering targets which support economic growth, identify strategic infrastructure projects will take a bold approach in terms of strategy, planning and onward delivery. It will not be a one size fits all approach; whether it be size, type or location, variety will be key.
For instance, there remains a strong reliance on very large sites and while these can be effective in terms of long term planning, but more sites are needed that address other more local issues and/or can provide supply in the intervening years.
If plans are put in place that do not shy away from the housing challenge – but embrace it and proactively plan for the homes and infrastructure needed – then growth is deliverable. If the plans do the bare minimum, however, and duck the tough decisions then housing requirements simply won’t be delivered.
Does boldness mean political suicide? Not necessarily. Some bold decisions have already been taken and the success at Graven Hill in Cherwell (at Bicester) shows that new ideas like custom build can work where the council take a brave step forward.
Proposed Green Belt allocations, innovation districts and new settlements have emerged but some have struggled to get through independent scrutiny while others have not been supported by a network of other sites to bolster delivery.
If local authorities are to be bold they need to be supported by Government in terms of funding of the infrastructure that often slows down delivery. However, this will only happen if what is being planned is more than the minimum and seeks to actively encourage economic growth. It is also for the industry to be innovative in what it brings forward. Oxfordshire needs private and public parties to come together with innovative and effective solutions.
Of course, helping Oxfordshire to meet its housing needs is a challenge that goes beyond planning. Even if great plans are put in place, ongoing dialogue and partnership between business, the development industry and local stakeholders right across Oxfordshire and beyond is essential for sites to be delivered. Local authorities could be bolder in terms of how they can work together with the private sector to accelerate sites through front funding and borrowing. This could potentially mean that the LEP and the Growth Board take on a problem-solving role to help schemes come forward and deliver.
The latest talk of a joint plan that could align with the National Infrastructure Commission’s recent consultations on strategic planning for Oxford-MK-Cambridge corridor is in my opinion an opportunity to be embraced and could have a positive impact on delivery. Again, its success will be dependent on how brave it is and how much certainty it provides. Would there be more safety in numbers to make bold decisions as part of a joint plan?
Initiatives such as the National Infrastructure Commission’s Cambridge to Oxford Connection ideas competition (launched this month), are exactly the kind of thing we need to be pushing for delivery from. Seeking visionary ideas for development typologies across the corridor encompassing Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford and Northampton that can contribute to delivering the homes the area needs, the competition aims to integrate the delivery of infrastructure with high quality places and maintain the environmental and cultural character of the corridor.
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