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Our 'Science Cities' debate at Jesus College Oxford - Part One

Above: 'Science Cities Oxford' discussion in the Tower Room at Jesus College's new Cheng Yu Tung building, designed by MICA Architects

Future Cities Forum's report part one features the issues of joined up planning in Oxfordshire at its recent discussion event held at Jesus College Oxford. Contributing to the debate were the Chief Executive of Oxfordshire County Council, Martin Reeves and Corporate Director - Environment and Place, Bill Cotton as well as the Chief Executive of OxLEP, Nigel Tipple.

Oxfordshire County Council's Chief Executive, Martin Reeves spoke of the tension involved in the creating high quality place and tackling the demand for new homes:

'If you start thinking about place, you can't understand the future of place and of density in a city like Oxford without understanding the relationship with the county and how we relate to those around us, and with Cambridge. There is only so much you can do in a congested and contested dense urban space in medieval Oxford. You can go high but that has issues. The question becomes how does this relate to transport connectivity, mobility hubs and future transport with our wider area market towns and villages where there is significant dis-connectivity? Also how do we relate to those other growth areas around us?

'Anything we do now about creating homes in the right places that are connected to leisure, jobs and future can't solve that conundrum without conversations. There is nothing inherently wrong with 15,000 or 20,000 new homes because people don't stay, they can't come here as there is nowhere to grow a family. What is wrong is if these homes are not connected properly, designed well, and linked in a futured way to all the areas around us. It requires strong political leadership and a complete re-think of the planning system, and all of our mindsets need to shift. Even in dense urban environments, you can do it if you think innovatively. I came from a dense medieval city (Coventry) that had a high growth agenda. and there were conversations about whose city is it and how you can co-habit? We are also fixated by what happens at ground level. I am a great fan of drone technology for goods and services to take pressure off what happens at street level.

Corporate Director Environment and Place at Oxfordshire County Council, Bill Cotton was asked about protecting the place agenda as the county and and city region invests in new infrastructure, green travel and connectivity. He said:

'One of my favourite phrases is the 'tyranny of geography' because wherever you go a line has to be drawn somewhere, and there is always someone on the wrong side of that line. You have that issue with the city of Oxford which has tight boundaries around it and then the districts outside who cannot always agree over what goes where, in terms of developments, so there is a big push now in terms of painting that picture of joining things up which everyone can buy into. With that strategic over-view of the city and the county it becomes a lot easier to plug in the infrastructure, whether that is the Cowley branch line extension or something else.

Bill was asked how easy this is to achieve when there is an anti-growth lobby locally and also conflict over protecting historic landscapes with heritage views:

'I read an interesting thesis a little while ago which got me thinking. It was comparing Leeds and Manchester in the early 1800s with Oxford and Cambridge. Back then then Leeds and Manchester were pretty sleepy, but then the industrial revolution hit and they grew like topsy and became the industrial heartland of the country. There's an argument now that suggests that in the twentieth first century economy with the expansion of life sciences and quantum computing that Cambridge and Oxford are the new Leeds and Manchester and so we should let them rip a bit, and develop more quickly. We don't need to make a Shenzhen but we can sensibly and sensitively expand. To take Martin's point, we do need more quality housing. Tall towers may have a role to play but it is about the connections between places.

'We have conversations with the colleges when they want to create a new development but they always want this within the boundaries of the city. When we suggest creating something further out, like Bicester, they always say 'Oh no, the professors need to be able to cycle there.' Perhaps we need a better bus network and connectivity so that the towns and villages can play their part in developing the economy of the region.

Bill was asked about the tensions around development, to attract global talent and keeping local communities engaged:

'There is a sometimes a view among communities locally which says - of proposed new science and university developments - what's in it for me? The housing prices are unaffordable and my children won't be getting a job there as they don't have double PhD. We need to work really hard on the inclusivity of schemes and finding pathways into work for the wider community. However growth will happen, as the government really wants this region to succeed, as it is a net contributor to the exchequer.'

Nigel Tipple, the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership's (OxLEP) Chief Executive spoke about the importance of Brand Oxford on the world stage:

'We spend too much time talking about what isn't working and not enough time celebrating what is going well. We have an incredibly strong brand which is globally significant and which is working for us, but it could do better. Our brand allows us to have conversations globally, and to start those conversations much earlier than some can. We are not competing with Cambridge, but the pan-regional geography is important as well to elevate that conversation about brand to attract investment, but also to land investment in an adjacent place but not see it as a loss. My view is that we do as much work in fusion technology with colleagues in Sheffield because of the relationships with their capability and our R&D, and on space technology with scientists at Goonhilly space station in Cornwall with Brand Oxford visible. We do spend too much time worrying about what we can't agree on (locally). We have a statutory planning process with a set of rules which we have to work within.

Nigel was asked about the potential for new mechanisms for the cross-boundary strategic plan:

'How do you look at place in the context of boundaries and connections, as Martin has been saying? People don't live on a boundary, they live in a place. If they live adjacent to two district councils and a city council, it does not matter to them. It's about the place and the functionality of that. However we need to make our boundaries more fuzzy because there are some challenges politically. Growth is not a bad thing but we need to make a case for the positive difference it makes to people's lives.

'The green-belt is not the issue, the question is where are we going to create spaces and places for people to live and work and how do we connect them whether they are on the edge of a city or within a new development, or whether we have a new town or village. It's back to the phrase 'green belt' which makes people recoil. Take Eynsham, to the north of Oxford, for instance and the Salt Cross development which has had its share of challenges. However look at the employment prospects there and the chance to create wealth - it's not all about (people with) double PhDs. There are lots there working in the foundation economy without which the 'shiny' projects would not happen, as you need supply chains and you needs skills. You need people who invest in their own community, and an infrastructure that enables that.

'For housing, if you take the ambition of what was the joint 2050 plan (the Joint Statutory Spatial Plan) I was personally very supportive of that because it allowed us to have a conversation for the first time across the geography to help colleagues in the County Council, the Environment Agency and Homes England, to look at Oxfordshire as a place and consider the investment needed to create the right levels of connectivity and infrastructure, and also place curation at scale. That allows you to move people between where they live and where they work efficiently and more effectively. That process almost got there, and there was value in that because we are still having conversations on planning connectivity between authorities. We have a county wide economic plan and transport plan, but we don't have plan about place curation at county level.'

Martin Reeves added:

'When you consider the wider place agenda, I am happy to be part of an international trade mission alongside Cambridge, based on a regional grouping, because international investors view the UK, Oxford and the wider region geography differently - for an instance a Canadian pension fund, or a Chinese investor will have different perspectives. So it may appropriate to combine Oxford and Cambridge for this within a wider grouping. However we do remain one of the most unequal cities and counties in the entire country.'

Watch out for part two of our report from our Oxford 'Science Cities' forum at Jesus College.


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