June: New housing deserves the very best of planning

June: New housing deserves the very best of planning

For most people, remembering a time before the pandemic conjures up pictures of parties, people and a freedom to go where you please, a lost world, but one which will eventually return.  I would add to this the joy in our green spaces surrounding our city, its setting and views, and the role they were about to play in the health of our bodies and our minds.   Yet for some of these green places the last eighteen months are to be their last, as during this interim they have been allocated for housing, leaf green to turn to tarmacadam grey, forever.   

The high cost of housing was the reason given by the government to allow nearly 20,000 houses to be built on Oxford’s Green Belt, and before long we will see the biggest growth in a century. 

This is not the first time that Oxford has seen a push for housing on this scale, as Malcolm Graham’s recently published book ‘Wholesome Dwellings, housing need in Oxford and the Municipal Response 1800-1939’ so ably tells.   Then it was a story of slum clearance, of ‘houses for heroes’ and of the difficulties in building affordable housing in the right place, and with the right resources available, a story of achievement and of shortcomings.   There was often a shortage of money for the community facilities, though at least we are unlikely to see the Cutteslowe wall happen again, dividing private and social housing.  The Oxford places made and the houses that were built back then still survive today at Barton, Rose Hill and elsewhere, and today they are the homes of  stronger, interesting and more diverse communities than ever before.   In his preface Malcolm suggests that there are’ some timely lessons for a brighter future’ that could be learnt as we go into this next building phase, and I hope that our own local politicians might take the time to ponder on what the historians will say in a hundred years from now about the Oxford we are about to create.  

The relevant planning authorities now have a big job to do as it is in their hands to ensure that good new places are created, deserving of all their residents, connected into the city and existing communities, and encouraging the new communities that will hopefully form.  We should also expect that these developments show regard for their surroundings, with a commitment to carbon neutrality and active travel plans which will see people cycle and walk linking into wider networks across Oxford and beyond.   Good planning is needed to make strong communities, perhaps even more so in an era when property can be as much as an investment as a home and there is no guarantee that those who live in them will have, or wish to have, a connection to the area. We will certainly all need to make them feel welcome and invite them to contribute and can take heart that the City Council will ensure that all new developments have 50% affordable or social housing.

And while the pandemic might have caused a pause elsewhere, it has done nothing to stem this particular tide, as a wave of proposals has come forward before the ink was dry on the Government Inspector’s pen.  Take the three sites at Old Marston totalling around 450 dwellings, all within the ring road, up against the conservation area and within the meadows running down to the River Cherwell.  Hill View Farm came forward first, with a City Housing development submitted subsequently and the third due in later this Summer.    With all that I have said, it is hard perhaps not hard to imagine the disappointment of the many people who provided their views when Oxford’s Planning Committee, in spite of many misgivings, recently recommended permission, so pressing is the need for housing, in their view.   What hope when this first development is so mediocre in design, lacking character as it sweeps away existing barns to replace them with urban forms, and with no thought of joining up with the other developments.  Add to this the lack of convincing provision for public transport, cycling and walking routes and the future should look bleak.   Yet it is not too late, there are conversations going on between responsible developers and landowners and organisations like OPT who own land around these sites to try to find a way of working together to make great places and we are hopeful that the Councillors will also try to do the right thing.  

And meanwhile back to the interwar development at Rose Hill, where the wonderful diverse communities have grown strong over the years, and a project ‘Discovering Heritage and Green Spaces’ will see OPT working together to help them to create a walk to celebrate what is special about their place.  I am hopeful it will include Oxford’s first ever community centre, and also its replacement which is so good that we gave it an OPT award in 2018.  We are also hoping that they will want to share this at Oxford Open Doors this year, and who knows it might even include a new access from the Rivermead Nature Park at Rose Hill through to the Iffley Churchyard via the University’s Court Place Graduate Centre as something they are promising as part of their latest development plans – making places even better for everyone.