What is the solution to Oxford's lack of affordable housing? The city is now the most unaffordable in Britain, with rents and house prices relative to earnings higher than London. Oxford Today asked a selection of the city’s inhabitants what they think needs to change.
Oxford is now the most unaffordable city in Britain, with rents and house prices relative to earnings higher than London
By Olivia Gordon
Oxford is now Britain’s most unaffordable city, even outstripping London. The city's house prices have rocketed in recent years in line with the London property market, and many professionals, including academics have complained of the fact they cannot afford to make a home here.
What is the solution to the lack of affordable housing in Oxford? Oxford Today asked a selection of the city’s inhabitants what they think needs to change.
The Oxford postgraduate student
‘In such a fantastic city where everybody wants to live, the reality is that prices will be higher. But it’s the peculiar regulations of the market in Oxford that make life difficult. The HMO [Houses in Multiple Occupation] legislation makes house-hunting in Oxford particularly difficult because even if you want to live with just two other friends, most of the houses advertised are not open to you. When places with a license do come up, they are considerably pricier than those without a license, have a queue of people waiting to look round them and the estate agents know they can treat you unfairly because they know how desperate you are. In addition, rules about how much you need to earn do not take into account the tax-free status of funding or expenses provided, meaning that everyone needs guarantors, which is tricky if your parents are not UK homeowners.
‘It’s great that the university can provide accommodation for so many students, but this often isn't suitable for everyone, particularly those with partners or more mature students. The university could further improve the experiences of students living out by providing services as a guarantor and by lobbying the council to adjust HMO licensing laws to maintain an appropriate balance between the problems they were designed to prevent and the ones they have ended up creating.’
Polly McKinlay (Balliol 2015) is a reading for a DPhil in History and Sociology
The University of Oxford fellow
‘Oxford is a remarkably constrained city. In 1927 a plan was published for its expansion to what would be the usual size for the largest settlement lying between Birmingham and London. That plan was thwarted by the university, which at that time did not need more buildings and some members of which disliked the growth of its car industry. Responsibility for the current constrained size of the city lies primarily with the old university.
‘Today it is the two universities, the hospitals, and the thriving service sector which most need to expand and which cannot because of those earlier decisions and the later imposition of a very tight ‘green' belt. Maintenance of the green belt ensures that the roads around Oxford are clogged as tens of thousands of people have to commute by car to the city every day.
‘The 1927 plan for the expansion of Oxford was, in hindsight, a very green plan. It would have allowed people to have lived within a few miles of the city centre and cycle in, rather than having to rely on the car and having to live further away. The 1927 plan included building on the slopes to the East (the lower slopes of Shotover, but also north of Barton, and South of Shotover - all below the ridge line) and West of the city (Hinksey Heights golf club and other areas shown on the 1927 map, which leaves Wytham Woods alone).
‘Oxford could be the Freiburg of England, a thriving, low carbon, affordable place to work and live. To achieve this we need to understand just how environmentally damaging it is not to build on the edge of the city, within the green belt. Apartments could be built where most residents who lived in them would not have rely on a car ever day. Older Oxford residents could downsize to those apartments, freeing up space for families in the city. More students and doctors and nurses and tutors and shopkeepers and hairdressers and pro-vice-chancellors could live in such apartments, and mainly cycle in to work, shop and plan (as older people in the Netherlands do). Many of these apartments would have views of the famous spires which are so very hard to see given the city's currently constrained extent.
‘Finally, the county could and should be opened up so that it is possible to visit the thousands of lakes in Oxfordshire, the woodland and the meadows by bike and on foot. Far too few people who live in Oxford know how much of the county they live in is hidden from them. If and when Oxford expands, the county will have to be made more accessible too. It is easy to see why a small minority oppose all this so strongly. All attempts to improve housing and the right to roam have always been opposed by a small group who prefer the status quo that benefits them, but not most people. However it is now in the interests not just of most people in Oxford to see it expand, but also in the interests of its major employers.’
Danny Dorling is Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at Oxford University and a fellow of St Peter’s College.
The affordable housing campaigner
‘I'm really unhappy with the way the world is going, especially the ever-growing disparity between rich and poor. Oxford is becoming more unaffordable; it’s rapidly becoming an elite city where only the very wealthy can afford to buy. The most recent statistics show the average house price here is 16 times the average salary. There are massive vacancies amongst big employers in the city – doctors, nurses, teachers, bus drivers...
'2.5 million council houses have been sold in the UK since 1980; those should never have been sold as now they are in open market and are completely unaffordable to rent or to buy for people on average incomes. In Oxford 40,000 people who can’t afford to live in the city commute in every day. My guess is that most of the new jobs being created by the new Westgate shopping centre development are for unskilled low-paid workers. With earnings of £15K-£20K a year maximum they can just about afford to rent a room in a shared house.
‘The government policy is that affordable homes are 80% of open market purchase price or rent. No one on average incomes can afford 80%. The Homes for Oxford model includes at least 50% genuinely affordable homes. Some will be for people to part-buy, paying 25-60% of the market cost. There would be no right to buy more of the home. We would also have social rented homes - at least as many as dictated by city housing policy and more if we can make the figures stack up. The Land Trust would own the land and would keep it off the market in perpetuity so the homes would be affordable forever. The other half of the homes would be for sale or rent at market prices, funding the development.’
Fran Ryan (St Anne’s, 1977) is a director of Homes for Oxford, a coalition of local groups which is placing bids for permanently affordable housing in the city
The key workers’ employer
‘It's no secret that house prices in Oxford have continued to buck the national growth trends in recent years. We are one of the highest paying bus companies in the UK but recruitment remains an ongoing challenge for us. Many of our drivers commute from outlying areas as far as Swindon and Gloucester, where housing is more affordable.
‘Like many things, it's a complex problem with no silver bullet solution. We should keep an open mind about sensible urban extensions of Oxford, even if this means reviewing the Green Belt. Ensuring that district councils meet the agreed quotas of affordable housing within individual developments is also an important factor.’
Phil Southall is managing director of the Oxford Bus Company
The estate agent
‘The latest government population projections show an increase in the expected population in Oxfordshire. In the period 2014 to 2039, the County population is expected to grow by 102,000 from 673,000 to 775,000. Each of the five local planning authorities in the County is forecast to see an increase in population. This increase in population will be the starting point for setting future targets for house building.
‘Oxfordshire has suffered for many years from a shortfall in housing supply relative to demand and this is reflected in house prices. According to Savills indices based on Land Registry data, house prices in 2015 were 23.8 per cent above the 2007/8 peak and are still on the increase. This price growth (relative to earnings) means that affordability is increasingly stretched. Local businesses report that high house prices cause issues attracting and retaining staff. If Oxford is to be an attractive alternative for businesses and employees, it must provide more new affordable housing across a range of tenures.
‘A low level of building in Oxford coupled with the constraints of the historic centre, flood plain and green belt mean that there is no simple solution to addressing the shortfall. But a positive starting point would be increased co-operation between local authorities to establish a strategy for housing delivery.’
Roger Smith is Director and Head of Planning at Savills Oxford
The University of Oxford Pro-Vice-Chancellor
‘Over the last 18 months we’ve had a look at housing costs in Oxford and the salaries of our employees and where they live. The category most severely affected are 4-4.5,000 postdoctoral research employees on middling incomes and fixed term contracts who form the backbone of Oxford’s research enterprise. They are choosing, by and large, to live in rented accommodation OX1 and OX2, the most expensive part of town. The reason why they do that is obvious – they are here for just a few years and keen to be close to their libraries and laboratories to make the most of their time in Oxford. Living in Witney or Banbury just doesn’t work for them. It’s likely they are paying probably about 60% of their salary in rent every month, which external bodies would consider poverty levels. Other categories of staff are also sorely affected by the cost of housing in Oxford, from the most eminent professor to a clerical employee on a fairly low salary.
‘We have a few flats in central Oxford that can be offered to newly recruited professors on a short-term let basis. For other staff there’s much less we can do – we’re lobbying for improvements in public transport and modest changes to green belt boundaries, for example. But the one way we can potentially do something within the financial means we have is for the University and colleges to build academic communities in small developments of rental properties. We’re working with a variety of consultants on the right design mix for affordable housing for our key workers – our employees – and we’ve identified over half a dozen sites in and around Oxford, which either we or colleges own, which are amenable to this sort of development.
‘There is, however, a big financial challenge – the city’s planning rules, which say developers must provide an equal number of additional units of affordable housing to be let through the social rental sector. So if we provided 16 units of accommodation for postdocs, we would have to build another 16 units to hand over to be let to social tenants, who could buy them within a few years. This doubles the price of what we would hope to provide as affordable homes for our staff, which means we’d have to double the rent to cover the cost, which makes them unaffordable. We’re lobbying local government, which is consulting on its next local plan to last the next 20 or 30 years, to ask them to modify this planning rule to recognise key worker housing is different from commercial developments – this is another way of providing affordable housing.’
As Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources), Professor William James is responsible for institutional and strategic planning, and resource allocation
Oxford Today also invited comment from the following, who had made no comment by the time of publication: Oxfordshire County Council, Oxford City Council, Barton Park Oxford, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust