Councillor Alex Hollingsworth
“Can’t afford a home? Have you tried finding richer parents?”
Earlier this year, advocacy group Canada Housing Crisis caught the public eye by posing these provocative questions on a billboard in downtown Toronto. Intended to draw attention to a growing affordability crisis, they wouldn’t be out of place in Oxford.
Unfortunately, despite its growing importance, the bank of mum and dad is a symptom and not a cure for this crisis. Make no mistake, Oxford does have a housing crisis – and not just for young people aiming to get on the property ladder.
High demand and scarce availability make our city among the least affordable places for housing in the country. And this affects everyone, even if you’ve paid off your mortgage and your house is worth many times what you paid for it.
Government statistics put median house prices in Oxford at nearly 12 times median household wages. Some banks put them higher. Either way, homeownership is an impossible dream for many people in our city.
With around 3,000 households on our waiting list, renting privately may be the only realistic option. Half of all homes in Oxford are private rented, with median monthly rent for a three-bed home of £1,450. For England as a whole, it is £800 a month.
The effect of this is to push people into hardship, overcrowded conditions or out of Oxford altogether. Private rents can swallow up to two-thirds of take-home pay. Half of Oxford’s workers have to commute into a city they can’t afford to live in. The cost of housing means that a third of Oxford’s children live below the poverty line and is a key factor behind poor educational outcomes.
The unaffordability of housing in Oxford doesn’t just impact individuals. It leads to growing unaffordability across Oxfordshire as key workers are priced out of the city. It is reflected in lengthening commutes and regular gridlock on the A40 and A34. It means that our hospitals, schools and shops struggle to recruit and retain staff. And it entrenches inequality in a starkly unequal city.
How is this not a crisis?
All of this is happening now. Without new homes, the affordability crisis will rip the heart out of what makes Oxford an amazing place to live, work in and visit. Building homes is not a tragedy. Not building them would be. Oxford needs homes.
So what are we doing about this?
Our independently-approved Local Plan provides for nearly 11,000 new homes within city boundaries by 2036. This contains planning policies for 64 new development sites, nearly all on brownfield land. Delivering these will not be without issues.
Land for housing is scarce in Oxford. There are no more big development sites like Barton Park, where we’re already building 885 new homes. Many of the remaining sites are on small pockets of land or present environmental, engineering and design challenges – for example, the former landfill site at Redbridge Paddock, where we hope to build around 200 new homes.
Traditional developers would find it hard to meet our requirement for affordable housing on such small or hard to develop sites. This is why we’ve set up a housing company, Oxford City Housing Ltd (OCHL), to help deliver the right homes for Oxford.
OCHL aims to build nearly 1,900 new homes for rent and sale in the next 10 years. Together with 354 council homes being built at Barton Park, this will yield a new generation of more than 1,100 new council homes. Genuinely affordable homes, let at around 40% of private rents. Another 300 homes will help people get a foot on the property ladder by buying a stake in their homes.
And these aren’t any old homes. OCHL is already building high quality, design-led and low carbon homes – helping Oxford on our road to zero carbon for new developments by 2030. This is a sustainable investment in the future of our city, benefiting everyone who buys or rents an OCHL-built home.
But more is needed. We’re out of room. We can’t tackle Oxford’s housing crisis on our own.
This is why we’re working with our neighbouring councils to build more than 14,000 new homes on sites as close to Oxford as possible. These include Eynsham, Kidlington and the South Oxfordshire Science Village (SOSV) site south of Grenoble Road.
SOSV is on the edge of Blackbird Leys and a natural urban extension to our city. South Oxfordshire’s allocation of this site for just under 3,000 homes includes a requirement that half will be affordable. Building right next to the city will also help to meet wider objectives.
People will live near their jobs, avoiding the need to commute long distances and helping reduce congestion and carbon emissions. They will be able to use public transport, which could be enhanced with the opening of a new Park and Ride, and the reopening of the Cowley branch line at the science park. Far from being wasteful, the SOSV site could provide a blueprint for sustainable development.
Campaigners against developments often claim “building these homes won’t solve the housing crisis”. I have a simple question for them: how will building no homes solve the housing crisis?
Doing nothing is not an option. Oxford needs homes.
About Councillor Alex Hollingsworth
Councillor Alex Hollingsworth is the cabinet member for planning and housing delivery at Oxford City Council.