It has been rehearsed for many years that Oxford cannot build all the homes it needs for its growing economy and population. The City is constrained by Green Belt, a plethora of historical and environmental assets, flooding and a tightly drawn administrative boundary. This is a challenge that will never go away – in fact, it will only get worse - and it will need good strategic planning to find the solutions for decades to come. So, in 2014 when all the Oxfordshire authorities produced a report stating that Oxford needed to build 32,000 more homes by 2031, it was no surprise that the City looked to its rural neighbours to help shoulder the burden.
In the planning world, we have waited with baited breath for the sequel - a follow up report by the county’s “Growth Board” setting out where Oxford’s housing would be located. Like many movie sequels however, perhaps with the exception of Cameron’s ‘Terminator 2’ (no, not that Cameron), we have been left rather confused and let down.
When the big release, there was no red carpet or fireworks – was very subtly announced on the Oxfordshire Growth Board’s website on Friday, we eagerly opened it hoping to find a well-reasoned vision and strategy for providing the homes and jobs the county needed. Instead we found a report that predominantly focuses on “numbers”.
It is fair to say we were initially surprised that the Growth Board had avoided the temptation to take the ‘equal split’ approach, which had been assumed by many of the councils. So far, so good… but where is the reference to place, people, communities or enterprise – surely that is what planning is about?
The report entitled ‘A countywide approach to meeting the unmet housing need of Oxford’ doesn’t exactly inspire you to read on, but for the dedicated that do, you will not be told a compelling story of what the county looks like in 2031, or why each district is providing the amount of homes it is, which leaves the reader wondering if there has been any proper strategic planning behind this process at all.
There is much narrative about the legal compliance of the approach with the Duty to Cooperate – a test Councils must pass to demonstrate how they have engaged with their neighbours when planning for their area, but where is the long term ambition and vision for Oxfordshire that provides the maximum benefits of growth? What about innovation and opportunities for investment, or the much needed infrastructure delivery? Or even something local communities can understand and buy into in a positive way? Whatever happened to a clear vision for Oxfordshire to 2050 with homes linked to infrastructure delivery and economic growth, which could have enabled a more positive and innovative approach to accommodating Oxford’s need now and in the future?
Perhaps we were particularly surprised given the progress made in strategic planning in Oxfordshire during the past few years. The Oxfordshire councils have been proactive in setting up the organisations and process for dealing with Oxford’s significant housing need – a place known to be the least affordable city in the UK. Dating back to around 2010, there was the Spatial Planning and Infrastructure Partnership (SPIP to its friends) addressing “strategic planning” matters across the County, then the Oxfordshire Growth Board in 2014. The Board has done some excellent work for the County: a Strategic Economic Plan and drawing in significant funding from central government and the private sector for major new infrastructure and employment projects. This coordinated thinking was hailed as a new era and has seen major new investments responding to the County’s planned housing growth in the city, Bicester and Science Vale to the south, all embedded with the theme of ’driving economic growth through innovation’.
But, the new report fails to finish what it started. Whereas before we had an understandable story about job growth, housing and infrastructure investment founded on the knowledge economy, the sequel appears not to be a sequel at all – being about cramming houses into sites purely based on their physical proximity to the city, not their relationship with its knowledge economy and the wider economic plan.
Because of this, we have seen many potential areas of growth simply ignored by the study. Banbury, Bicester and Science Vale are all critical to the “knowledge spine”, with excellent and improving rail connections into Oxford, resulting from many millions from the public purse. Yet they are simply discounted without any real assessment.
So what went wrong? The crux of the issue lies in the way the Growth Board went about their assessment. They started by simply asking each of the rural districts to nominate sites they thought had potential in their areas to meet Oxford’s needs by virtue of their distance from the City. There is no sense of strategy, vision or proper coordination - the proposed approach simply seems to be blind to the strategies put forward by each of the local councils in their own plans – for example, Science Vale is ignored. Instead the chosen sites appear to have been nominated purely based on their proximity to Oxford, without considering how they could work alongside each of the district’s own plans, or address longstanding issues and opportunities across all of Oxfordshire (the elephant, or indeed Woolly Mammoth in the room here being the A34).
Flowing from this is a lack of analysis about who these homes are for. If they are for knowledge economy workers, how many homes are needed for students, for graduates, for technicians, for university staff, for executives and for those working in the supply chain of the knowledge economy? This surely affects locational choices and the types of homes and places that are needed. The types of communities we are seeking to create should inform where the growth should go.
Because of its weak justification the report published by the Growth Board lacks bite, and it knows it. The report is littered with caveats – relying upon subsequent studies and supporting work to answer the questions and fill in the gaps, and that it will be up to each of the district councils to undertake further work on the chosen sites. Consequently it is entirely possible that each Council could argue that in light of further evidence, the Growth Board’s recommended sites cannot meet the target for their area and do not carry them forward into their Local Plans. What happens then? The report is notably silent on how the Councils would respond to this, and if the housing need then goes back into the pot or simply vanishes altogether!
Furthermore, the report gives the opportunity for each Council to consider other sites within its area for meeting the apportioned need. This is perplexing. If the housing apportioned to each district is based on the capacity of the assessed areas of search, what happens if a new site comes forward, and how is this considered against options in the Growth Board study?
These are some fundamental questions that go to the heart of not just Oxford’s housing need, but the economic growth of the County as a whole. It is therefore surprising that key stakeholders such as local communities, land owners, developers and businesses are not even being given the opportunity to inform the process, input into the thinking, or comment on these reports. How can local people expect to shape their communities and places through neighbourhood plans if they are not involved in fundamental decisions about the bigger picture?
Instead, they are told that “you must make comments through each of the Local Plans” – the first being West Oxfordshire’s Plan where the whole argument will be played out at the Examination in Public resuming later this year. What happens if this consultation and testing identifies issues with the apportionment? Again, there is no answer in the report.
So we have an unconvincing and confused strategy with too many unanswered questions, including the final figure for what can actually be accommodated within the City limits. The approach fails to assess the county’s needs in a well-considered and evidenced way, and fails to provide a robust strategy for dealing with Oxford’s housing needs. These shortcomings are only made worse by the fact that the local communities and key parties are not even invited to make comments before it is too late.
What happens next then? We will be attending the Growth Board meetings where this will be discussed and will feed in our concerns – we can only hope it can be recovered so that Oxfordshire’s future has a chance of achieving what it previously set out to.
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Oxford, Green Belt, Housing Crisis