Intelligence: 31 January 2019Oxfordshire 2050: Visionary or vaporous?

Set to establish ambitious objectives for housing and economic growth for the region over the next 30 years, preparation of the Oxfordshire Plan 2050 (previously known as the Joint Statutory Spatial Plan) will be challenging. 

Endorsed at the Oxfordshire Growth Board meeting on 29th January 2019, the publication of an Issues and Options Paper represents the first formal consultation stage in the plan making process. This initial consultation, commencing on 11 February 2019[1] begins to set the context, objectives and aspirations for the region and alludes to the challenge of tackling cross boundary issues concerning the growth of the economy and delivery of housing and infrastructure. 

The perception of Oxfordshire is one that is synonymous with an attractive place to live. Accessible countryside, high educational attainment, heritage and culture coupled with one of the fastest growing economies in the UK, reinforces the positive image of the region. The strengths of Oxfordshire, however, also fuel many of the challenges. With affordability ratios at some of the highest levels in the UK, employers face recruitment challenges whilst commuting from more affordable areas outside the region, creating congestion on an already creaking infrastructure network.

Oxfordshire’s housing market is broken. A clear indication of the problem is the soaring affordability ratio, the root cause of which is chronic undersupply. Fixing the problem necessitates a far bigger supply response than implied by standard method, minimum housing need. In the context of Oxfordshire’s growth aspirations, planning for minimum need is planning to fail.

James Donagh, Development Economics Director

The challenge for Oxfordshire lies in determining the level at which the long-term requirement for housing should be set alongside where and how such growth could be accommodated to maintain and improve the quality of life and natural environment.

Whilst the projected growth is yet to be quantified and is undoubtedly an emotive subject, it would be perverse for housing delivery to reduce in the face of the ambitious economic growth identified to support both the region and the wider extended Cambridge, Oxford and Milton Keynes Arc (CaMKoX).  

Consideration needs to be given to the development required to support the wider growth aspirations of CaMKoX which could help meet under-delivery of homes in neighbouring land constrained markets such as London.

[1] subject to the approval of individual local authorities

Oxfordshire contributes considerably to the national economy. To continue to grow, development must foster places people want, and can afford to work and live in. Across Oxfordshire, no one location or development model will be capable of delivering the anticipated number of new homes, places of work and community facilities. Development will be required in a wide range of locations. Spreading the ‘development load’ allows individual places both new and existing to evolve and develop in tandem with their surroundings and landscaping while encouraging the creation of vibrant places with a richly varied urban form. 

Vaughan Anderson - Urban Design Associate

Commentary on how growth will be allocated across the region is noticeably absent from the Issues and Options paper. It is simply noted the Plan will identify broad locations for housing and employment but is unlikely to identify or allocate specific sites.  

As a minimum, we expect the Plan to identify individual district level housing requirements derived from the regional target in order to secure local level support for the wider growth strategy. Beyond the duty to co-operate to a duty to agree. 

It is also anticipated that locations for growth will be interlinked with strategic decisions on infrastructure and employment, most notably along key transport corridors aligned with East-West rail and the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway. These national infrastructure investments seek to connect key employment centres, expand and diversify the labour marketing and unlock locations for new development.

However, with the corridors of these transformational projects shortlisted, questions regarding whether the key locations for growth across Oxfordshire have been pre-determined or dictated by CaMKoX in a top-down approach will be asked. It is therefore imperative the evidence base for the assessment of spatial development options, locations and reasonable alternatives is robust and transparent.  

As a consequence, we predict the Sustainability Appraisal will play a critical part in the plan-making process, face much scrutiny and will present an important opportunity for key stakeholders to review, identify gaps and/or potential flaws in the assessment of options which can offer valuable insight to support the promotion of sustainable locations for growth. 

Partnership working is clearly key to the Oxfordshire Plan, however, agreement will have to be reached on what is likely to be a hugely contentious Plan in a relatively tight timescale. Whilst the aspirations and vision are bold and to be commended, there is no doubt an underestimation of how controversial the preparation of a joint planning document could be, in the wider CaMKoX jigsaw.  

Underlying the initial consultation on the Oxfordshire Plan 2050 is a refreshing look at strategic planning that begins to link together housing, infrastructure and economic growth. How this is carried forward through the plan making process remains to be seen but for now there is a real opportunity for landowners, developers, employers and stakeholders to support and shape ambitious growth for the region and proactively identify and promote locations for new development over the next 30 years.

To discuss the opportunity and how engagement in the preparation of the Oxfordshire Plan could be of benefit, please contact Michael Knott or Charlotte O’Mahony.

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Cambridge, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Arc (CaMKoX), Development Economics