Oxford 'Science Cities' report - part one

Image above: Radcliffe Square, Oxford, showing the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

Future Cities Forum held its 'Science Cities' event in Oxford last week with discussion on how to continue to attract talent to the city, which is expanding its science and innovation real estate and facilities. At the same time there is concern - which was reflected in the debate - about how to develop joined-up infrastructure and housing, to support science clusters.

Oxford City Council's Tom Bridgman spoke about the current development of the city, the need to create better transport links to the city's science parks and how to create the right balance between economic growth with the building of much-needed affordable housing:

'We are not going to get involved in science but certainly there is more to do in connecting the clusters and campuses. There is a lack of space in the city and not enough housing. It's very important to build more homes but not at the expense of creating more work- space. We need to do this while being inclusive of nature, in creating as a near to a zero-carbon economy as we can. But if we don't ride the crest of the wave of the economy in the science area, we will struggle to keep the growth going. Politically there is an anti-growth attitude in the city. We see our work in the science area as a shared endeavour with London and Cambridge. The University has traditionally been a closed shop in Oxford, but now that is changing.

'In planning terms, Cambridge has had it easier than in Oxford and our district partners have seen growth as a threat. There are four district councils and at the moment we cannot agree on a growth plan. This is a real threat and something that the business community is waking up to as far as transport and innovation is concerned. We need to divide the city into segments for private vehicles. Planning needs to catch up with creating EV charging for peoples' homes. Unless you have a drive, you need planning permission. We have lots of conservation areas and that has held us back. There needs to be legislative change.

'We need to brand all of the city, not just the individual science parks and come up with something that embraces real values like zero-carbon etc. But we need to show how this growth is benefitting local people and this needs to be driven by business, and at the moment there is not a coherent voice from business.'

Ellie Evans, Partner at Volterra - an economics consultancy - talked about the need for inclusive growth and the importance of actively planning for jobs to be accessible to a wider group:

'We are working with Tower Hamlets in London at the moment, on a project to make jobs accessible, using employment programmes to help demonstrate career paths for people who normally would not aim for a high-flying career. People who are doing the employment don't appreciate the different roots that people can take to get into these jobs.

'On housing - there will always be constraints. The more successful a city is the more housing is needed, but if we do not deliver growth we will not level up. Investment and growth will go somewhere else.

'Our two projects at the Spires on Botley Road near Oxford Station and Trinity House near the Oxford Science Park have long time frames but landlords do understand the products of would-be tenants which is important and out of town locations can work but you need the transport connections.'

Ellie added that she thinks no one is too clear on what the current pipeline of development is – there are quite a lot of potential sites out there, she says, but there does seem to be an issue regarding deliverability of sites. The issues with pipeline we are seeing are that developers are taking time to realise what the specialist requirements for life sciences actually are, lack of sites, historic constraints of the city etc. Wider economic issues have pushed up prices and pushed out timescales, and there are severe shortages of sustainable sites (accessible via public transport).

She commented that there seems to be an issue that some locals and potentially the council view new development as zero sum – that only so much development should be supported as there is a cap on what is possible. She said she thinks it is an important point that investment in clusters tend to result in positive feedback loops for all members, by increasing the scale and attractiveness of the cluster. If this kind of development doesn't happen here, she commented, the investment would go to another cluster in the UK, maybe even abroad.

Abve: CGI from LDA Design of canal-side housing for the new mixed-use development at Oxford North

How to plan and design for successful housing developments with high quality public realm around new science and R&D space in Oxford, was taken up by Kirk Nelson from LDA Design. The firm has been working on Oxford North, a new science hub in the city. Kirk said:

'The most important starting point is to think of the people who will be living there and create spaces to bring the future community together. It is also important to think of the infrastructure because Oxford North is part of a wider community. Oxford North will have a large park in the centre and development along the canal of green spaces and biodiversity. We are trying to get people to cycle as well as providing all the latest low carbon features for the housing, such as ground source heat pumps. Refuse collection, security and planting to avoid spaces where muggers can hide, are all considerations. We are planting 200 trees and there will be attractive glimpses through them to the park. The development should have places for chance encounters and play areas because post Covid, people have seen the value of neighbourhood.'

Above: aerial view of Harwell Campus, in 'science vale', Oxfordshire (from Harwell Campus)

The challenge of making science parks into attractive places was furthered during the debate by Stuart Grant, CEO of Harwell Campus:

'Harwell is part of a network of R&D and innovation campuses we run, which include places at Hammersmith, Uxbridge and Hatfield and Oxford Business Park at Cowley. We have been copying the US model of developers like BioMed Realty and Alexandra. Clever ideas have come usually from the USA. Two and a half years ago a group of us sat down with Brookfield to talk about setting up a network of science and innovation campuses in the UK. Our sites at Harwell and Oxford Business Park are most relevant to this discussion. We have four industry sectors present at Harwell - space research, life sciences, energy tech and quantum computing and 6,000 people working there. Your question is what makes it a nice place to work. Harwell was an old airfield originally and then it became the centre for the UK's atomic energy research.

'The setting is really important. We have mature trees, views into the AONB, and a cricket ground - people love the environment. It's a rural setting but we have amenities including 30 sports clubs - and you can reach London in 38 minutes from Didcot and Oxford in 20 minutes. We are home currently to 18 start-ups and 40 mature companies. We will be announcing another company re-location shortly and this will be a game changer for Harwell.

'At Oxford Business Park we own 80 acres which we bought a year ago. How can we make Oxford Business Park into a more vibrant community, improve the landscaping, and make it denser? Local residents don't benefit so we hired Allies and Morrison to review the master plan. This has lots of ideas and will create new jobs and the park could be a nexus point with the Cowley branch line extended and re-opened, acting as a transport hub with new housing and located next to BMW Cowley.'

Oxford City Council's Tom Bridgman added:

'It's about how we make Oxford Business Park a bit of the city and not just a bolt-on. Often science parks are just bolt-ons. The Cowley branch line re-opening could be a game changer by connecting businesses and communities in east Oxford to Parkway station then on to London Marylebone. The aim for Oxford North district project is to get it right straight away.'

Tom also mentioned the Grenoble Road development, which includes nearly 3,000 new homes in an urban extension to the south of Oxford. The Council is working with fellow landowners Thames Water and Magdalen College on plans to develop an area of land south of Grenoble Road. The council has long held ambitions to develop this site, which sits between the A4074 to the west and Sandford Brake substation to the east, to help meet Oxford’s need for homes.

The proposed development – known as South Oxfordshire Science Village (SOSV) – will also feature an extension to the Oxford Science Park, new schools, open spaces, community facilities and shops, as well as improvements to sustainable travel. These could include a new Park and Ride and the reopening of the Cowley branch line at the science park.

South Oxfordshire District Council (SODC) released the SOSV site from the Green Belt during the adoption of its Local Plan for “exceptional reasons” which include providing for Oxford’s unmet housing need – in particular the need for affordable housing – close to where that need arises. While Oxford’s own Local Plan supports the delivery of nearly 11,000 new homes by 2036, this will involve building up to the city’s boundaries and will still not be enough to meet Oxford’s housing needs.

SOSV will also contribute to the regeneration of Blackbird Leys as well as providing better sustainable travel and an extension to the science park.

The council will now work with Magdalen College and Thames Water to put a development agreement in place and begin the procurement of a master developer taking primary responsibility for the planning and delivery of the site. This approach has been identified as the best fit for SOSV, as it minimises financial risk and allows the landowners to influence development of the site. A planning application could be submitted in 2023.

Above: timber frame buildings proposed as part of Milton Park 2040 Vision (CGI from Milton Park /MEPC)

Milton Park is another of Oxfordshire's science parks that was one of the pioneers in the county of R&D space for university spin-outs, alongside its role as a business park that dates from the 1970's. Commercial Director at MEPC, Philip Campbell, who runs Milton Park at Didcot, joined the debate and described its origins:

'To give some context and history, it was RAF Milton Depot to 1960 then evolved into Milton Trading Estate. MEPC acquired it in 1984 then in 1988 management made a decision to use Milton Park as a vehicle to house Oxford University and space research spin-outs. It was.visionary at the time. Today we have three million square feet of space, 45 per cent income is from life sciences, and 20 per cent from original trading estate uses. Our 2040 vision looked at steps on the journey from rural to out of town to edge of town innovation district, and our job is to continue the gentrification process.

'The beauty of Milton is that you have scale so you can afford to take a bit of risk on certain companies joining as tenants and we have lots of baskets and lots of eggs in those baskets. We are working on an amenity refresh and upgrade. This is important as we make the journey to an edge of town innovation district.'