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. 

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. 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

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. ‘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. 

Danny Dorling ‘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... 

Fran Ryan'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. Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources), Professor William James

‘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 city is now the most unaffordable in the UK, with rents and house prices relative to earnings higher than even the overheating markets of the capital. T‘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. Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources), Professor William James

‘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

Images: Pintrest, Shutterstock, Theo Silkstone-Carter


By Avraam Jack Dectis

The Brits are very smart people, yet, on certain issues, much like everyone everywhere, they seem to be less than brilliant.

First off : THE ROADS. Why do you torture yourselves with the negatively blessed roundabouts? I can understand that if you have never driven where they do not exist, you might believe that they have some positive attribute. They do not. They are stressful and inefficient and make driving a chore. Stressful driving means unpleasant commutes and a strong desire to avoid them.

If you do not believe me then, Oxford scientists, run an experiment. Take a dozen seasoned UK drivers, rent each one a car and have them drive from one side of the USA to the other. At the end, ask them if they miss roundabouts. Also, make those negatively blessed rural roads wider. There is no shortage of space so decent shoulders could be added as well.

Second: IMAGINATION. For a University town, it seems to be remarkably lacking in both parking management and housing. If you thought a bit more out of the box on the issue, ( and were able to gin up a bit of a budget ), you could create something so effective and elegant it would be featured worldwide. This forum is inadequate for elaboration.

I hope that helped.

Avraam Jack Dectis

By Paul Beckwith

Oxford needs a development plan for the next 50 years. To encompass 1) lots more housing including a lot of high density "mid-rise" near the city centre for post docs, young professionals and service sector, and more housing developments further out (but not the usual souless developer tat), 2) radically redesigned public transport (more red busses is not the answer) - probably light rail/tram part of the solution and much better cycle lanes and 3) get the A40 out of Oxford by routing further north of putting it in a tunnel for the short section between the Banbury and Woodstock roads.
There is a complete lack of vision, the current growth of the city is being done piecemeal.
A group needs to go and visit Freiburg and some other top German university towns and see how it is done!

By Fiona C. Lunn

I totally agree with Polly McKinley's point about the HMO legislation. In my view this has crippled the rental market for students whose college cannot provide suitable accommodation for them; my heart goes out to them.

I rented-out rooms to postgraduate students in my house in North Oxford for many years; the rental from two rooms covered my costs and the rental from the other two rooms gave me some income. When the HMO legislation was introduced it meant I could only have two tenants and I realised I would have to increase the rent. I was a student a while ago (1977-1981) and I know that Oxford is a far more expensive place to live now. Charging students a far higher rent was against my principles, however doing the necessary works on the property to comply with the HMO legislation was not feasible. I continued to rent-out the house to just two tenants but this has not been sustainable and so, as a consequence of HMO legislation, accommodation for four students is no longer available in my house in North Oxford.

My story is not unique. The Council should understand that a) if landlords can rent-out more than two rooms in a property then the rent can be kept low and affordable for students, and b) landlords are withdrawing properties from the student rental market due to the HMO legislation and this is exacerbating the imbalance between supply and demand for such accommodation.

Polly is absolutely right in what she says: "The University could further improve the experiences of students living out... 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."

By Dorcas Fowler

Research shows that roundabouts as opposed to traffic lights ease traffic flow. The situation is quite different in the USA. I recently visited a small town in Pennsylvania and was amazed to see that there was a four way junction with neither traffic lights nor a roundabout - the theory, apparently, was that without these the drivers would approach with caution. What wishful thinking! Do the Americans not experience road rage?

By Eric W. Edwards

Completely out of touch with the reality of working class Oxford. I came here as an undergraduate mature student in 1971, settled here and became a City Council tenant in 1977. The piece makes no cognizance and the private landlord and letting agency profiteering in the city itself, the octopus-like property expansion of Brookes, nor the property stranglehold of the University and Colleges. The City Council housing policy is hamstrung by the government and by financial restrictions. I am sorry but I think the Oxford Today article is nought but a candy floss analysis and serves no realistic purpose.

By timothy keates

Do not agree with Nvram Jack Dectis regarding roundabouts. Where I live, in Italy, roundabouts were almost unknown when I arrived in 1970. Then, they began to appear in the 1980s. They help to clam over-excited driving, for one thing. I recall, many years ago, driving through the Swiss city of Basel/Bâle and coming to a central point from which five different roads branched — but no roundabout, only a policeman gazing into a shop window. Crossing the open space to enter one of these roads, you took your life in your hand. By contrast, driving to Milton Keynes (which I obstinately pronounce like the economist), I approached a big roundabout and asked my passenger which road to take. "Let me study the map," she requested. We went four times round, then she gave me the correct indication. Without the roundabout, I might well have taken the wrong road.
As for the housing problem, the UK seems permanently reluctant to build accommodation (and of a decent sort).

By Patrick McDonald

Lack of vision, political will and a set of unhelpful planning policies creates the problem. The structural challenge between town-and-gown and city and district creates further complications around whose problem this really is.

We - www.oxfordsmarthousing.com - have spent years trying to make progress on this issue and now have a real option to build 72 key-worker one-bed flats on William Morris Close. This could really happen AND be an exemplar project for other similar developments.

Units would be sold at a 20% discount to market and would in perpetuity belong to key workers and / or first-time buyers. 100% of the units would be 'affordable'. The design is a beautiful Danish creation with floor to ceiling glass; wooden floors and nice units. Each flat would be 50 sq m2 and thus 11 sq m2 bigger than minimum. The site would be a campus like park land, encouraging bikes and with parking centrally encouraging people to walk through the landscape to meet neighbours etc.

The project is fully funded and ready to go. Flats could be ready within 12 months of planning being granted HOWEVER - this project will never happen.

Why not...?

For 3 reasons:

1. Despite currently being a boarded up eyesore with no public access the site is originally been deemed a green space and no one in the city seems able to re-think that. It is not a public green space today and never will be as the landowner, on grounds of public liability, keeps it boarded up.

2. Social Housing: 50% of the 72 flats would have to be socially rented which, as William James points out disadvantages key-workers. I have met with the City of Oxford about this and in real terms each key-worker would have to pay £100,000 for their flat in order to subsidise the socially rented units. This puts the price of the key-worker flats out of reach for key workers. If we could make it all key-workers then that would be different. I have spent my life helping street children (I set up www.viva.org) so I am not unsympathetic to the needs of the poor but it seems unfair to me to charge key workers and first time buyers the cost of building social housing. They should spend their pennies getting on the housing ladder in order to pay off their own mortgage rather than somebody else. Otherwise - they might end up needing social housing!

3. Balance of Dwelling: Another compounding policy challenge facing our project is the balance of dwelling policy which requires us to, not only build in social housing, but also create a range of units from small to large. The larger ones are obviously more expensive thus further diminishing supply of small units for key workers. Less supply creates scarcity which drives up price. The BofD policy creates scarcity and is not, in my view, reflective of the demographics of Oxford which is a city full of young smart busy needing something small to own. Maybe the BofD can be viewed as over a larger area (a road or neighbourhood) not across every single project?

There is plenty room in Oxford to create more housing and with some visionary transport policy Oxford could become a global centre for innovation, insight and initiative. A city full of hope and possibility and from which global solutions originate and scale. However without some radical thinking about how to solve this housing crisis that won't happen.

By Edmund Blackie

Suppose I'm a medaevalist: but must the Oxford I knew be yet further swamped? Recently wandered amongst the re-development of Westgate: whimsical posters evoking an Oxford the very work in hand denies. That poor residual Latin Quarter of Cowley now become, what is it, a suitably sized city between London and Birmingham? Is there no sense, no defence?


I thought the Channel Islands had solved the problem of demand causing excessive house prices: those who need to live in Oxford should be able to afford to do so. The University has perhaps expanded too much: it has become too much a business - as have all British Universities ! Oxford Brookes likewise perhaps should focus on really worthwhile courses and research. Perhaps the University should move some of its research to other institutions in low cost areas such a Colchester. Generally the problem of older people living in too large a property - I am one of them! - needs solving.

By Scirard Lancely...

I have to agree. My wife and my son each own and rent out a house in Oxford, and both have been hit by the HMO regulations, which as other correspondents have said causes the rents to go up, and requires a plethora of fire alarms and fire doors that seriously degrade the quality of the house.

Having rented a house, shared between four of us, while an undergraduate (rent £78 per month, or £4.50 a week each in 1970) I later owned a house in which I lived just after completing my degree, sharing it with five other students, and which was in due course a victim of the HMO regulations (they hadn't been invented when I first owned the house) This I later sold to be returned to a single non-HMO dwelling, so that is no longer on the market. Additionally I had a small site that I thought would admirably accommodate a small student block for six, but the architect assured me there was no chance of getting planning approval for student accommodation as the council were very anti-student, so it is now offices. Sorry I can't seem to help on this one!

By the way there seem to be lots of spaces above shops in central Oxford that could become student accommodation, but if you talk to the business owners you will probably hear more about HMO and other restrictions which dissuade them from this.(though I can report that both the shop properties from which I used to run my business have student accommodation above)