Oxford employers have been asked to pay their staff higher wages due to disproportionately high housing costs. Green party Oxford City Councillor Sam Hollick said people should be entitled to at least £8.93 an hour, while the living wage which most employers, including the University of Oxford, now pay is £8.25 an hour. Hollick said in a statement, “The government’s new ‘living wage’ needs to be a lot higher for it to be considered a real living wage.”
The national living wage was introduced by the Government across the country, replacing the legal minimum wage for people aged 25 or older. Employers nationwide must now pay their staff at least £7.20 an hour.
Yet according to Lloyd’s, average housing prices in Oxford are 10.68 times local earnings, making it the least affordable city in the United Kingdom. Winchester comes second at 10.54 and London third at 10.06.
For this reason, Oxford City Council has separately promised to pay what it calls the Oxford Living Wage, at £8.93 per hour. It pays this to all staff and requires contractors with fees over £100,000 to pay it.
Bob Price, Leader of Oxford City Council told Cherwell, “The Labour City Council established the Oxford Living Wage at 95 per cent of the London Living Wage in 2011. We also require all contractors working on Council contracts to pay this as a minimum. We have also successfully pressed other major Oxford employers to pay the OLW. The five per cent decrement reflected the slightly lower transport costs incurred typically by Oxford workers vis a vis London.”
But Andrew Smith, Labour MP for Oxford East came out in support of a raise in the living wage. Smith told Cherwell, “I strongly support a higher living wage for Oxford, which in cost of living terms is more in line with London than much of the rest of the country, but we also have to win the argument to be allowed to build more homes, or any increase in incomes will be matched by further increases in rents and house prices.
“With the housing crisis, cuts in tax credits, and massive pressure on council and health services, there is a real and present danger of an ever deeper chasm opening up between the haves and have-nots in our city. This is wrong, unfair, and desperately damaging both to those shut out of opportunity and to the fabric of our society.”
Danny Dolan, professor of human geography at the University of Oxford drew attention to the underlying problem of the housing crisis, telling Cherwell, “As the cost of housing rises much faster than inflation in Oxford and as Oxford is the most similar city in the country to London in terms of living expenses the case of paying at least the Oxford living wage is obvious. Not paying it demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the time and value of others. Unlike the national minimum wage, the living wage does not discriminate by age and pay people less simply because they are not aged 25 or over.”
Dolan added, “The living wage is just a small part of what is needed to make living in Oxford work as well as in most other European cities. Oxford also needs more housing. Again here the university, and in particular a small number of its constituent colleges that own land, have a part to play and a choice to make over whether they play that part.”
Lesley Dewhurst, Chief Executive Oxford Homeless Pathways, a charity providing services for the homeless in Oxford highlighted the insufficiency of salaries for those emerging from unemployment in Oxford. She told Cherwell, “It is my understanding that there is already an Oxford Living Wage prescribed by Oxford City Council which we, as City Council funded organisations, adhere to and support in terms of the salaries we pay our staff.
“However, it is true that employers are finding ways around this with the recent introduction of the national living wage, and we would be naïve to think that this wouldn’t just happen more if a higher living wage for Oxford was enforced. The way forward, in my view, is for these loopholes to be closed and the cost absorbed by more equal pay structures, with less gap between lowest and highest paid.”
“As far as homeless people are concerned, the most helpful thing to get them into accommodation would be to raise the level of Housing Benefit that can be paid, to encourage private landlords to consider those on benefits or low wages. Starter jobs for those people coming out of long spells of unemployment are rarely paid well – but, even if paid at the Oxford Living Wage, would not necessarily be sufficient for the high rents that are levied locally.”
However, there have been concerns the raised living wage would put unfair pressure on local businesses. Graham Jones, co-chairman of Oxford-based business group ROX, warned that the higher wage requirement could force some businesses into reducing the number of employees or hours.
He said in a statement, “Higher wages are good for employees, but although some businesses will be able to absorb the costs through efficiency savings, there will be those who need to increase prices, or the reality could be a loss of jobs.”
And Harry Samuels, an Oxford student running for councillor with the Liberal Democrats said that while he supported a higher wage for the city, its impact would be minimal unless housing costs themselves were addressed.
Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon has been contacted for comment.