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Oxford 'Science Cities' - economy, infrastructure and energy - June 2024

Future Cities Forum will be holding its June 'Science Cities' at Jesus College, Oxford, this June. MICA Architects have carried out an impressive re-development of the college which interacts with Cornmarket and Market Street (Above: CGI of Market Street view towards Cornmarket of Jesus College)

Future Cities Forum is delighted to be holding its June 'Science Cities' forum at Jesus College, Oxford, where MICA Architects has been working in conjunction with the College’s Strategic Plan 2017 – 2021. MICA has developed designs to meet the College’s ambitious targets for expanding and enhancing the core academic priorities and purpose of the College.

Through the implementation of this masterplan, MICA has addressed several factors, including: the need for additional space and facilities within the College to meet requirements for teaching and research; the response of the College to the University’s ambition to grow postgraduate student numbers and related accommodation; the creation of a public gateway for the College to facilitate outreach and access, making the College more accessible both physically and virtually; and establishing a digital hub that will bring together all at the College to facilitate knowledge exchange and impact.

As well as meeting these academic objectives, the College is mindful of the need to maintain and enhance the quality of its retail outlets in Cornmarket and Market Street, which form an important part of its commercial interests and contribute much to the centre of the city.

Director Stuart Cade of MICA has commented:

' The Cheng Yu Tung Building is a new prominent and unique mixed-use building in central Oxford, which brings together teaching, retail, research, NHS healthcare and student living within a 21st century fourth quad for the Elizabethan college. The scheme is a major addition and new active building in Oxford’s evolving city centre, providing high-quality mixed-use space and turning a previously unsightly ‘back’, to a positive ‘front’. Retail is topped by student residential and communal college space made visible from the public realm to reinforce the building’s presence and diversity of uses.

'The scheme is central Oxford’s first new all-electric building, complemented by on-site energy generation for 40 per cent of its needs. Harnessing embodied carbon, the scheme re-uses an existing concrete structure, with the majority of new structure being constructed with carbon-negative cross-laminated timber.

'At its centre, a tiered forum provides a gathering space for the college as well as a new facility for interdisciplinary digital research and immersive display and visualisation. Above a new, generous entrance a gatehouse is topped by a new tower room gallery with striking views, at close quarters, across the famous ‘dreaming spires’.'

The discussion

At the forum, contributors from government, investor developers, science and energy leaders, architects and planners will be discussing the topics of science hub development, sustainable energy investment, transport connectivity and housing to support key workers and for talent attraction.

A key priority for OxLEP’s Local Growth Fund investment has been to back Oxfordshire’s world-leading science and innovation community, supporting them to continue to make impacts that are not just felt in the UK, but internationally too.

It states:

'It is perhaps therefore not surprising, that investment aligned with the ambitions of The Oxford Trust – who own the Wood Centre for Innovation in Headington –– has already led to considerable impacts being delivered. This is just one of the projects sitting within the significant £107.5 million-worth of Local Growth Fund investment secured for Oxfordshire by OxLEP.

'By March 2023 the project had already far exceeded a 2025 target of 148 new jobs for the Oxfordshire economy – a major increase in a sector that continues to grow within the county, in part, through OxLEP’s determination to secure ongoing investment.

'The Oxford Trust’s £1.1 million investment into the Wood Centre for Innovation – delivered over two phases – has enabled significant and new life science laboratory facilities to be developed and ultimately increase capacity within Oxfordshire’s major innovation ecosystem.

'Over a quarter of this funding – around £300,000 – was secured by OxLEP via the Local Growth Fund.

The Wood Centre for Innovation is owned by The Oxford Trust, a charity launched in 1985 by Oxford-based entrepreneurs, the late Sir Martin Wood and Lady Audrey Wood – the founders of the University of Oxford’s first, and some say most successful, spinout, Oxford Instruments.

'Through the Wood Centre for Innovation and its sister centre – the Oxford Centre for Innovation – The Oxford Trust has for nearly 40 years provided cost-effective office space, technical workshops and R&D labs, as well as co-working spaces that back the county’s science and technology start-ups and spin-outs and underpin their future ambitions. Many of these start-ups have gone on to make major impacts across a range of science and innovation-led fields.

'Oxfordshire has a globally-renowned reputation for answering and providing solutions to some of the most-pressing challenges in the world of science – whether it be leading the worldwide charge to develop an effective vaccine for Covid-19, or developing key answers in the drive towards a net-zero future, including via Oxfordshire’s major strengths in the field of fusion energy. Most-recently, the Novavax R21/Matrix-M vaccine – developed by the University of Oxford – is showing real promise in stemming the spread of Malaria, with at least 75% efficacy in preventing disease.

'Set in the heart of Headington’s digital health and life sciences cluster, the Wood Centre for Innovation offers more than just serviced offices. Its flexible workspaces provide the perfect space for start-up and early-stage businesses specialising in science and technology.

'Collectively, by 2030, OxLEP-backed Local Growth Fund projects will create 9,700 new jobs, support 2,800 new learners, develop 1,800 new homes and enable at least £850 million of new funding for the county.'

New science labs are being designed inside the redundant Clarendon retail centre in Oxford (image below)

Economy, net zero and transport

Future Cities Forum will draw on research gathered at its last 'Science Cities' autumn event in Oxford, where it discussed 'a fairer economy' for all in terms of skills, employment, housing, transport and energy.

The Leader of Oxford City Council, Cllr Susan Brown commented on the importance of a fair economy for all:

'One of the important actions we have taken is over wages. Despite having a strong economy there are areas of deprivation, so we have set up our own living wage. It is one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in with housing being the most expensive issue. We have set the living wage at 95% and we pay this to all our employees and encourage other employers in the city to do the same. St John's College, where this event is taking place today is paying it and the introduction of the living wage is making significant improvements for the city.

'Investors in the city must realise that there is a recruitment and retention issue in Oxford and they therefore have to pay the living wage to attract and keep employees. This is a city that is leading in research and we are providing good lab spaces and science parks but there is a responsibility to think about employees and how they are able to afford to live locally. Our local plan consultations are making it easier for employers to build housing and as a council we are doing much to provide affordable homes.'

Cllr Brown was then asked about the difficulties of meeting UK government expectations on biodiversity gain when building housing:

'We are very proud of the green spaces in our city and our planning requirements are as good as we can get. We have taken the lead on the carbon zero agenda, including around biodiversity, and how we bring that together and make it work for everyone. There is a good cross-county partnership which means that this is really changing for the better in all the spaces that we need for new homes. There are challenges in terms of the skills we need to tackle this but we want to be part of this new thinking.'

Cllr Brown continued:

'For people living in Blackbird Leys, it still doesn't feel like their city centre but with the help of the Cowley branch line opening up we are moving in the right direction, not only for the general public but for business, science parks and for improvements to Oxford Station.

'Oxford Station is a little embarrassing at the moment and we do need to do something quite significant to make it a landmark building. There is still work to be done and that's part of our masterplan for the site but we need to persuade Network Rail on the scheme. We have our architects, Weston Williamson in place. We have two new rail lines coming through Oxford, with EastWest Rail coming through Oxford, a rail line to Bedford and onto Cambridge on the east side. Then there is the new rail line to the Chilterns. We want to retain integrated buses at Oxford Station and not so much car parking but that is a big issue that needs to be solved.

How can the county create more equality through transport provision? Robin Rogers, Head of Economic Development for Oxfordshire County Council explained:

'It is about buses and not just about car access to the city centre and this is about equality and also for investment. Oxford is a thriving science city but it is also about the fifty miles beyond the city too and outer city communities. They don't feel connected because of the difficulty of getting into the city and this is very much about change for equality, access to skills training and stable jobs. We are so bunged up with the current model of housing estates on the outside of the city and there is plenty of rail infrastructure out there but we need change.

The debate turned to the issue of how much the UK government was supporting the energy networks to enable the growth of data and innovation hubs.

Tom Bridgman said:

'Local energy partnerships are now looking at a local level and in a more granular way with technology such as photovoltaics. We need to get that right and make sure we have SSE and the National Grid working with us that will be part of the answer.'

'Some of the current problems seem to result from from land-banking of power...people are reserving capacity from the network for developments and then they don't use it. Can we see a world where that changes?'

Cllr Susan Brown responded:

One the things we have suffered from for years in this country is a lack of confidence in local and regional government to act with long term vision for policy. It seems even more fragmented at the moment, and some of the decisions around net zero are appalling. The pan-regional partnership we have in place, is one area which can allow us to address issues around energy, for instance. Talking to cities and twin towns in Europe, the Mayor of Grenoble couldn't believe we don't have regulation powers over energy, water and power suppliers locally, to try and get what we need as a city. We don't have powers to ask them to provide. That has to change, and we need a way of progressing planning with them.'

Above: canal-side new homes by Hill Group for Thomas White Oxford's Oxford North development (courtesy LDA Design)


On housing, Oxford City Council has given the green light for a project which could yield 30 affordable homes on council-owned brownfield sites in Barton, Wood Farm and Blackbird Leys.

Recently, cabinet agreed to use an award of £340,213 from the Brownfield Land Release Fund (BLRF) to undertake legal and enabling work which will include demolition of garage sites and derelict bungalows. 

This will help pave the way for a mix of affordable community-led and council homes in Underhill Circus, Leiden Road, Balfour Road, Harebell Road and Pegasus Road. 

Community-led housing means local people play a leading and lasting part in helping deliver the homes communities need.  

The council has been working with Transition by Design and Oxfordshire Community Land Trust (OCLT) on plans to deliver community-led housing on land it owns. Last week’s decision follows a 2021 joint feasibility study which mapped council garage sites and other unused land in Blackbird Leys to assess their suitability for new homes. 

The feasibility study included extensive community engagement and identified the three most suitable sites from an initial shortlist of eight. 

BLRF funding will allow the demolition of 34 garages on two sites in Harebell Road and Pegasus Road and further work to prepare a vacant former garage site in Balfour Road for development. Each site has the potential for four new homes. 

There are around 1,925 council garages and nearly 750 of these are vacant. The garages in Harebell Road and Pegasus Road are too small for modern cars and 16 garages still let are used for storage. Tenants will be offered an alternative garage nearby. 

The council intends to grant a long lease to OCLT which will allow the trust to redevelop the sites. Once completed, OCLT will let the new homes at rents no greater than local housing allowance to people nominated from the housing register. 

BLRF funding will allow the council to start work on plans that could deliver up to 12 council homes in Underhill Circus and up to six council homes in Leiden Road. This will include the demolition of two uninhabitable council bungalows in Leiden Road.  

The council intends to let the new homes at social rent to people on the housing register.  

Council housing company OX Place will manage the delivery of these two sites.  

All five sites are at an early stage of development, with no planning consent yet sought or given. The agreement to legal and enabling work is a necessary step for work on developing the sites to progress. 

The council will contract with ODS for all demolition and grant fund OCLT for other enabling works on the garage sites by 31 March. 

The BLRF requires all land to be released for housing by the end of March 2027. 

Manufacturing innovation and the BMW Mini campus at Cowley

BMW Group announced in October 2023 a new investment of more than £600 million in the MINI factories at Oxford and Swindon. “With this new investment we will develop the Oxford plant for production of the new generation of electric MINIs and set the path for purely electric car manufacturing in the future,” said Milan Nedeljković, Member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for production.

The Oxford plant is gearing-up to build two new all-electric MINI models from 2026, the 3-door MINI Cooper and the compact crossover MINI Aceman. By 2030 production will be exclusively electric and the BMW Group will have spent over £3bn on its Swindon, Hams Hall and Oxford plants since 2000.

This development has been supported by the UK Government and will help to secure jobs at the Oxford manufacturing plant and at the body-pressing facility in Swindon.

Below: 'Made in Oxford' - a BMW Mini made at Oxford's world famous Cowley plant sits in Market Street by Jesus College.

Join our June forum for more discussion on these important issues for 'Science Cities' and a tour of the College at the end of the event.


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