The city is choking as it struggles to build a sustainable future, but David Rudlin finds reasons to be hopeful

David Rudlin

If you take a guided tour you are told that Oxford is the oldest university in Britain and that Cambridge was founded by a group of Oxford students expelled after an unfortunate incident in 1209. The story is told slightly differently in Cambridge, but it feeds into the rivalry between the two cities and their venerable institutions. There was, as a result, a certain amount of embarrassment when the Oxford Times reported that a party from Oxford council had been spotted on a study tour of Cambridge to learn from their great rival.

Sitting at either end of the CaMKOx corridor the two small cities are facing intense development pressures in very different ways. There has been much discussion about the need for transport links along the corridor and the potential to build a million homes. However, growing the cities themselves in a way that retains their character and can be served by public transport is an even more intractable problem.

In rising to this challenge Oxford does have much to learn from Cambridge. This is one of the messages of the Oxfordshire Futures report launched a few days ago. It is the culmination of five years in which my colleague Nicholas Falk has been working without pay with the excellent people at the Oxford Civic Society. Over that time six reports have been produced looking at the growth of Oxford, the development of a new quarter around its station, affordable housing and the potential for a tram network.

The final report pulls all of this together to set out with great clarity how Oxford should grow. It is published as a prompt, and perhaps also a challenge, to the newly created joint spatial plan team that has been charged with creating a strategic plan for 100,000 new homes in Oxfordshire by 2031. Earlier this month the growth board was allocated £215m of infrastructure cash, creating the best opportunity since Thomas Sharpe drew up his visionary plan in 1948 to positively plan Oxford’s growth.

>> Also read: Why North West Cambridge is a model for building on the green belt by Ike Ijeh

>> Also read: Why Cambridge is beating Oxford in the planning race

It is a task that Cambridge started in the late 1990s when it set up the Cambridgeshire Horizons initiative. Since that time Cambridge has delivered 73,000 homes together with £4bn of infrastructure spending including its guided bus. Urban extensions are being built at Trumpington and Cambridge North West as well as four new settlements, while the Cambridgeshire quality charter and design panel have had a noticeable impact on the quality of design.

In Oxford, by contrast, the lack of new housing has made it the least affordable place in the country (related to average incomes) leading Oxford professor of geography Danny Dorling to state in the Oxford Futures Symposium that the university is finding it difficult to recruit academic staff for lack of somewhere for them to live.

There are of course mitigating factors. In Oxford the Labour-controlled city is tightly bounded by four Conservative-run districts and there has been huge opposition to development in its green belt which is arguably more precious and constrained than Cambridge’s fenland. Cambridge has only one other district to deal with and has managed to foster a relatively constructive dialogue about growth. The result is that Oxford has been stuck in a planning paralysis, strangled by its green belt and choked with congestion from all the people commuting from the towns beyond its green belt.

The Oxfordshire Futures report sets out a simple strategy to address this. It calls for development to be evaluated against three criteria: cutting car mileage, building more affordable homes, and tackling inequality. It recommends that around half of the planned 100,000 new homes in the county should be built within a 10km radius of Oxford as urban extensions and new settlements served by public transport.

It identifies a major city quarter on 200 acres of underused land around the station and proposes a north/south spineline with frequent train services (called Swiftrail) running on existing lines from North Kidlington to Didcot and Cowley. An Oxford tram would also connect urban extensions and park-and-ride sites together with bus rapid transit on the longer routes. All of this to be funded from the uplift in land values resulting from development. The report refers not just to Cambridge but to the European university cities of Grenoble and Freiburg to show how it can be done.

The vision is the easy bit – implementing it is where things get complicated. Party politics plays its part, of course, but there is a much more constructive dialogue emerging as a result of the new Oxfordshire regional structures.

The problem is the convoluted way in which our planning system works. We rule out all of the places where development shouldn’t go and whatever is left, however unsustainable is where we build. As the report says, “Building away from where most jobs and services are located is not very smart and adds to congestion, pollution and travel costs.”

This is particularly difficult in contested places like Oxford.

The real message of the report is that reform of the process by which we plan is almost more important than the vision contained in the plan.