Where will our kids live and how will they afford it?
We used to plan our cities. In most European countries they still plan their cities. What would a plan for the future of Oxford look like that was sustainable, environmentally responsible and affordable?
Where should and could housing be built around the city of Oxford? What size should Oxford be planning to grow to by the year 2030, 2040 and 2050? And, most importantly, why are these questions not even properly asked?
What kind of housing should be built and who should build it? What would ensure it is and remains affordable in the future? How can it be built to double the number of people who cycle and walk to work and increase the use of public transport? Who plans for the future need for new schools, fewer cars within the city and the right of the children of the city to be able to remain in the city of their birth (even into adulthood) if they so wish?
We used to plan our cities. In most European countries they still plan their cities. The last comprehensive sensible plan for the expansion of Oxford was published in 1927 (shown at the very end of this post). It was circular because the main mode of transport at that time was the bicycle. People can only cycle so far from Carfax! Now that electric bikes and trikes are available there is no good reason why Oxford could not achieve what the whole of the Netherlands currently achieves. In that country a quarter of people aged 65, and over, regularly cycle, and a majority of working-age people walk or cycle to work. Surely one city in England should be able to manage that by 2050?
Oxford expanded rapidly in the 1930s, and again in the years up to 1970. The eight small maps below show how it grew and how it also then hit the limit of its very tight green belt, the belt that artificially constrained its local city boundary. Almost no housing was built in or around the city during the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and even into the current decade.
If you look very carefully at the last map below you can see the ‘Barton Park’ addition, the one that is currently being built now, and this is in November 2018! Oxford is the most unaffordable city in England as a result of this dearth of building after the 1970s. It is also one of the least green cities in England because up to 40,000 people drive over the green belt every day, most do this because they cannot live in the city.
Oxford Liveable Streets have produced a plan for the major arterial roads within the city, making almost all of them one way for motorised traffic. This would then allow space for four cycle lanes, two on either side of each main road, a faster and slower cycle lane. Bikes could travel both ways on each road; buses and cars only one way.
Long before 2050, cars should be almost entirely banned from the centre of the city. Buses would crawl ever so slowly through the largely pedestrianised centre, just as they have very recently begun to do outside the entrance of the new Westgate shopping centre. This opens up more space in the centre of the city for the many thousands of new tourists that Oxford should expect to see arriving in the decades to come as the middle-income population of the world grows.
When you plan new housing you have to think about everything else as well. Tourism will be one of the ways in which the city and its universities prosper in future, and tourism income should reduce the current reliance on philanthropic funding from men (almost always men with questionable reputations) for the renewal and upkeep of university buildings. Such better transport planning within the city will also make it possible to increase the density of housing within the city boundaries and to add more housing on the edge of the city, most having views of the old university, without creating transport chaos.
If you find the map above confusing then think about just one junction you might well use if you live, study, or work in Oxford. Try to imagine how very different it would be to walk or cycle across The Plain (the roundabout just to the east of Magdalen bridge) if cars only entered the roundabout from the London or Iffley roads, and if they could only exit the roundabout up the Cowley road. Can you estimate how many people who unnecessarily drive to there, would still drive there? Imagine if the buses only drove one way along the roads to and from the Plain, leaving so much extra space for wider pavements and four cycle lanes. Imagine how many more people could safely walk across Magdalen bridge at the height of summer and how much better the air would taste. The map below shows how little space is currently given to those who walk or cycle across the Plain:
Be more imaginative. Think how much Cornmarket has been transformed over the last three decades. How it has been altered repeatedly, from a street jammed full of cars in the 1980s to one that was limited to buses in the 1990s, but where the bus companies filled the street with dozens of buses every minute of the day during the stupidity of the ‘bus-wars’ when planners believed bus companies should fight it out for supremacy.
Think through all these recent follies to how Cornmarket is pedestrianised today, with no buses, no cars, and even bikes only using it in the evenings. Now imagine what will happen over the course of the next thirty years to the Cowley road and how it will end up by 2050 being the pedestrianised equivalent of a mini las Ramblas, the most famous boulevard in Barcelona. Why are we unable to see that far ahead and plan for it, rather than wasting money on small scheme after small scheme that eventually inches towards that almost inevitable conclusion?
Why can’t we imagine building cycle tracks out into the countryside, as suggested in the map below, rather than having to confront the idiocy of a plan to build the first quarter of the outer M25 motorway in an ark from Oxford to Cambridge? Who in their right mind would propose building a huge new motorway unless they desired to rekindle the fervour of the M11 and Newbury by-pass road protests, and to turn a new generation of young people into road protestors?
It is very hard to see why anyone would even think it was not laughable to suggest the building of the Oxford to Cambridge expressway to generate yet more traffic, pollution and people having to drive long distances to the city in which they work, rather than simply live in it. Why not instead, at just 1% of the cost of an expressway, propose to build some high quality cycle tracks out from the city of Oxford to allow people to actually see the greenbelt, and to help protect it in future as the green belt becomes a place people actually use for recreation and exercise? These cycle tracks would also, of course, be very safe for children to use as they would not be next roads.
And then, once you have planned the future long term aims for how transport in the city will work then, and only then, can you plan the new housing. You need to plan for the possibility of trams too, which may be affordable in ten or twenty years from now. Oxford used to have trams running along its main streets. England is currently too poor a country to imagine being able to do that in the immediate future. But short term political folly and economic distress is no reason not to plan, knowing that in future such transport links will again be possible and buses will not be the only form of public transport within the city. Sort out the roads and then you can build the homes.
So, where to build? Go back to the 1927 plan and see where they proposed housing to be built then. The red lines on the map below are the proposed ring road, before it was built (luckily not all of what was proposed was built). Housing was planned for Oxford all around the ring road. The ring road was never meant to be a noose around the city’s neck, drawn tight and constricting its growth. The ring road was meant to be within the city.
Look at how the Oxford ring road currently runs through Summertown to see how that is possible, if the current reliance on cars is greatly reduced by better transport planing. The ring road can be made safe, as it is in north Oxford. It just needs to be slower and for fewer people to rely on using it to get to work, to shop, or to travel in general by car. Now that Oxford has two railway stations again fewer people should need to use their cars as much in future, especially if the railway is also improved so it easier, faster and more frequent to get to get to Didcot, Bicester and further afield by rail, than by car.
And then think how the hospitals would be able to recruit and retain their staff if we had more high quality, low cost, densely built housing, including within very short walking distance of the John Radcliffe hospital, on the fields just to its north. Think how Oxford’s schools would not face repeatedly losing as many as a quarter or even a third of their teachers every few years, as those young teachers give up trying to find the money to pay the rent. Private rent in Oxford is double what average mortgage repayments are for the same property. Just imagine what it would be like to live in a well planned city in one just generation’s time! They imagined it before. Here is what they dreamt of almost one hundred years ago:
But why grow the city? Why not try to keep it like it is. Fossilised as a relic of the 1970s, frozen in time at the end of the era when we used to plan. Why not keep Oxford as it is: a monument to Mrs Thatcher’s belief that planning was bad and that the market would decide who had the right to live in the city; a folly celebrating her belief that if you could not afford to live in the city, then you should not be living there.
If you need to know why Oxford needs more housing, then ask young adults who currently work in the city but rent privately or commute in; they will tell you why.
Ask the people living in tents hidden away from sight along the more overgrown banks of the rivers in the city.
Ask the people sleeping sheds, the very largest of sheds, that you can now see at the ends of many gardens.
Ask those who live three families to a three-bed house along the streets that you once played as a child. Streets where a single family could easily afford to live in a single house in the 1970s.
Ask the postgraduate students who are officially just renting, two to a property, but in which four or five actually live. They live in homes where they worry that they are breaking the law. However, they know there is no other way they can study at one of the universities, and also afford to eat.
Ask why the sewer system overflows each year. It is because many of the new people are already here, just not the housing for them. It is because so many homes are so overcrowded and because we failed to plan better sewers.
Ask why people are always leaving their jobs in such high numbers and we have to recruit again and again to fill posts. We only fill them temporarily because no one without “family money” now stays for long if they have to rent.
Or ask your children, if you have children, whether in future they might want to live in the city in which they are growing up.
Or ask yourself – if you want children – why you live in Oxford, when you know you cannot afford to start a family, because you will never have a proper home.
Basing the plan for the future growth of Oxford on the bicycle is how you limit the future growth of the city, because almost no one wants to cycle very far each day.
You can eventually build up to, but just below, the ridge lines of the hills. Build apartments without stairs because we are an ageing population. Build at high density around the edge of the city so as many people as possible get to enjoy the views into the city. And build housing, as they did with the new towns, that is allocated on the basis of need, not greed, and where the rents are regulated. That truly affordable housing should be the large majority of new building around the city. It can be built to be beautiful. It can be built to be sustainable. It can be so much more green than the car-commuting alternative that we currently embrace and plan to extend with the ‘expressway’.
All this dreaming will, of course, will require the election of a Labour government nationally. Labour are committed to the compulsory purchase of land at agricultural prices on the edges of the cities with greatest housing need. The city with the greatest need is Oxford. The danger is that before a Labour government or Labour/SNP coalition is formed, private developers begin to build executive housing on that land for London commuters. Homes with five bedrooms, two garages, maybe even private swimming pools. Oppose that, and plan for a better way. Organise, imagine and be active.
In future our children and their children can live as adults in the city in which they grew up. There is no need for that city to sprawl out endlessly to make that possible. More students, more workers and more tourists can fit within the city than are here today, but with appropriate planning this increased volume need not be felt as oppressive. We who currently live in the city, should we wish, could grow old in the city, on the edge, and with a view into the city that hardly anyone today can enjoy. Should we live within Oxford today in a family sized house, then if this dream becomes true, we can know that another family is now enjoying that house, just as we are enjoying the view of the dreaming spires. We can then grow old near to where our family and friends still live, and can afford to live. It is not very much to ask.
We used to dream of a better future. Before we can get a better future we have to learn to dream again.
A summary of parts of a talk by Danny Dorling, introduced by Susan Brown, leader of Oxford City Council, 2nd November 2nd 2018: