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Report part one - Oxford 'Science Cities' - economy, housing, transport and energy

Future Cities Forum meets at St John's College, Oxford in Wright & Wright's new library and study centre to debate future challenges for developing science cities.

Future Cities Forum discussed 'a fairer economy' for all in terms of skills, employment, housing, transport and energy at its recent Oxford event held in the Wright & Wright designed library at St John's College.

The Leader of Oxford City Council, Cllr Susan Brown began the discussion talking about the work that the council has been carrying out to correct inequality:

'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 and the latest announcements by the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, on scaling back on this:

'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.'

A big part of the Oxford economy is tourism and Cllr Brown was asked about measures to build this but work to prevent over-tourism as has happened in other world cities:

'it is true that tourism is an important part of the Oxford economy and we attract around half a million tourists a year. But we have had exactly the same problems as other cities with coaches arriving and polluting the city centre, visitors as day trippers and avoiding spending money which doesn't help local businesses. In addition, there has been a real lack of hotel accommodation in the city and a problem with short term lets and Airbnb, which has taken houses out of the pressured housing market. There has been a real growth in the number of hotels recently but there is still demand. Both Boswells (department store) and the old Odeon sites in the centre are being brought forward now as aparthotels, with community facilities.

Tom Bridgman, Executive Director of Development at Oxford City Council added:

'I think that growth of public realm is the key to good tourism in the city. There was also a problem of visitor guides that weren't trained and meeting groups in Cornmarket. Now for the first time our thinking around public realm in Broad Street has given way to the first real civic space in the city and this has some value for tourism. We trialled a pilot for a summer with planters and took control of the car parking - which was a brave decision to remove it. We are now due for a consultation on what to do next with the public realm and this will be really important. The city centre action plan will make the city more relevant to local people. At the minute it is dominated by the colleges, who feed and water their students in-house anyway. We have put £7 million investment into the Covered Market to create more public space and also developed Market Street, enabling it to be open and alive in the evening. Gradually the University of Oxford is making its buildings more permeable and that is the case with the Weston Library building, now open to the community and that is part of a cultural shift that is slowing happening.'

Above: aerial view of housing at Blackbirds Leys, Oxford - adjacent to the BMW Mini plant at Cowley

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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.

Joining the discussion, Sebastian Johnson, Head of Inward Investment, OxLEP, stated:

'Rail development around the Botley Road development and unlocking the Cowley branch line (which was originally built for the Morris car factory - now BMW Mini) is critical. Buses are no good if the roads are clogged up, but I would say that Oxford is brilliant for cycling. There has been investment of one and half billion pounds in the last few years in creating jobs and there is an attractiveness about Oxfordshire for investment. If you add the Arc through to Cambridge, you can see strength in science sectors. A lot of work has been done for years by the City Council and it has invested in the OxCam Partnership to raise the bar. We are competing with UK and world cities and we need to be working with them. But Covid shone a bright light on how we can solve some of the world's biggest challenges, with the Covid vaccine as an example and we need to be working with the middle area of the UK, in places like Stevenage, to provide land for manufacturing.'

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.

Sebastian Johnson commented:

'This is our greatest challenge. Rishi Sunak has recognised it and that the first come first served model isn't working. There is some fantastic work in the renewables sector going on in Oxfordshire. Some developers are looking at working more smartly and coming off grid, but it is piecemeal and we need more investment from the public and private sector and a lot quicker. It is also a matter of how you can look at supply and demand, store energy and get our local project recognised nationally.'

Tom Bridgman agreed:

'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.'

On becoming a smart city, Eversheds Sutherland's Sebastien Bonneau, who is a Partner in the data centres and digital infrastructure practice, stated:

'Today we don't have enough power for our data centres. If we want to use AI we must be futuristic and to become a truly smart city we must increase the amount of power available. A good way to approach this is by upping the amount of renewable energy infrastructure. You can have public infrastructure that generates renewable power. We need the small data centres, edge computing, to augment larger infrastructure but without sufficient power we won't be able to use anything including our phones, the internet, and that is the harsh reality. For an investor - without power there is no investment. Connectivity has been under-invested over the last 20 years. We have to invest a lot now. '

Tom Bridgman commented:

'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?'

Sebastian Johnson responded:

'The direction of travel now from the government seems to recognise this (land-banking of power) issue and the need to address this archaic system of first come first served, and instead is looking at who actually needs the power now, and then giving the local district networks more responsibility to manage this. The grid is struggling to cope with additional renewable energy, and the Oxford sub-station does need upgrading.'

While Sebastien Bonneau commented that In Germany the obligation to recycle excess heat has become mandatory, Simon Payne of Lambsquay Consulting - who was recently Cambridge City Council's Director of Planning for 11 years - added:

'The main lesson from my experience working in Germany is that there is a lot more certainty and long term thinking there, that goes well beyond beyond the local and sub-regional. There was a (UK government) announcement today about biodiversity, but we are planning for generations to come. Garden towns, for instance, need a 30 year vision to plan and develop. It needs a different mechanism and also a move to long term thinking. How do you get over the ad hoc approach and short term thinking that we have now? There are all sorts of partnerships cobbled together to do what the RDAs (regional development agencies) originally did. We are facing fundamental issues on water, waste, energy and net zero and how can we tackle these with a fragmented approach? Susan, with your influence, can we expect the next government to address this?

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.'

Joining the debate, Jessie Turnbull from MICA Architects, brought the discussion back to working on these issues with Oxford colleges:

'We are working on various master-plans at the college level...the synergies between housing and science developments are really important. Data centres generate so much excess heat, so this could help with hot water and heating for accommodation. Allowing the two to synergise could provide employment benefits as well.'

Future Cities Forum will be publishing the second part of its 'Science Cities' discussions held at St John's College, Oxford, next week.


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