Context 166 - November 2020

16 C O N T E X T 1 6 6 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 2 0 BOB COLENUTT Oxford’s impending planning disaster The current planning reforms are likely to exacerbate the city’s polarisation and create obstacles to addressing climate change, healthy cities and socially just development. Oxford is an exceptional city. It is not just its heritage that marks it out. Like many towns and cities with restricted boundaries and hedged in by green belts, it is under intense pressure for development and infill. City governments and local people have limited powers to control these pressures. It is important to understand why that is so, and what can be done. The background to Oxford’s planning problems is well known to its residents, business and visitors. The city is a premium location for business and the knowledge and universities economy - and is in a highly desirable position in the south east, within easy reach of London. At 16 times the average wage, house prices are well above the average, helping Oxford to be one of the least affordable places to live in the UK. Inevitably, there is an acute shortage of social and affordable housing. An additional 32,000 homes are needed to meet housing need in the city, but of course these can not be found within the city boundaries. Two things follow: first, there is a plethora of pulling down of existing buildings, change of use, and widespread infilling; and second, every possible green space outside the city boundaries is optioned out to volume housebuilders hoping to get a planning consent. Landownership is thus a potential gold mine. The leading landowners are the university col- leges and Oxford University itself, who own much of the land in the city centre and in the surrounding green belt, and the city council, which owns parts of the city centre and the council estates in the south of the city. Other landowners with money to spend are American colleges, sixth-form colleges, and private schools. Almost all of these educational institutions are expanding and investing in their real estate. The community, particularly in the north of the city, is faced with an unstoppable force of educational expansion accompanied by new development for student accommodation. A recent case of Oxford North development illustrates the powerlessness of local people. St John’s College, owner of a large area of graz- ing land on the northern edge of Oxford, applied for permission in 2018 to build 90,000 square metres of employment space and 500 homes. Under Oxford City Council planning policy, 50 per cent of the homes would be affordable and 80 per cent of these would be for social rent. St John’s, a historic owner of this open land and an educational charity that pays no tax on profits on trading and sale of property assets, said that if it provided any affordable housing at all, its scheme would be unviable. After local uproar it said that it could provide some affordable hous- ing after all. In the final negotiation St John’s, one of the richest educational institutions in the world, got away with just 35 per cent affordable housing. Local people did their own analysis of the viability reports from St John’s and showed convincingly that the college could well afford to provide policy-compliant affordable housing, but the college was able to manipulate the viability assessment system to show the opposite. What can the planners do to control or rebalance development in cases like this? The city has just An aerial panorama of Oxford (Photo: Chensiyuan, Wikimedia)