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Council outlines new housing strategy

The Planning Inspectorate have approved Oxford City Council’s plan for the building of over 10,000 homes by 2036 to meet Oxford’s housing crisis. 

The Inspectorate concluded that Oxford faces ‘serious unaffordability in the housing market and unusually marked inequalities’. This justifies the Council’s estimated need figure of 1,400 homes a year until 2036. The plan that was initially submitted estimated a requirement of 8,620 homes in total, but this was modified to a minimum of 10,884 homes as the city’s needs became clear. 

According to the report, some of the housing ‘cannot be accommodated within [the city’s] boundaries and needs to be accommodated by Oxford’s neighbours’, requiring cooperation with other local authorities. There have already been large numbers of Oxford residents moving to nearby towns where house prices are far cheaper. In 2019, the average price of a property in Oxford was just shy of £400,000, around twice that of its counterpart in Swindon. The portion of the East-West railway connecting Oxford and Bedford due to be completed in the mid-2020s, will further encourage movement to neighbouring counties.

The housing proposals in accordance with a 2014 Strategic Housing Marketing Assessment study that called for more local authority building in the county amounting to a minimum of 24,000 a year in Oxfordshire. The South Oxfordshire District Council’s leader Sue Cooper suggested the SHMA findings had been ‘discredited … in some eyes’, as they may increase the pressure on rural local authorities outside the city. However, the certainty provided by the inspectors’ seal of approval was welcomed by all.

The Inspectorate has also stated that ‘the substantial level of affordable housing need in Oxford’ constitutes as ‘exceptional circumstances for the release of Green Belt’. This has been met with condemnation by several local campaign groups including the Campaign to Protect Rural England. They argue the ‘growth at all costs’ policy needs to stop, and their leader Helen Marshall told the Oxford Mail it was ‘a second-rate plan for what should be a first-rate city’.

However, the report contains provisions to ensure that ‘urban land is brought forward where possible’ and puts forward a modification for minimum housing numbers within site allocations. This would ensure that brownfield sites would be exploited to their full potential and hopefully prevent serious loss of the Green Belt. There have already been initiatives to this effect with the Council participating in the ‘Action on Empty Homes Week’ to address the 400 or so homes currently vacant in Oxford.

The plan was also modified to exempt affordable housing contributions on sites of less than ten homes and certain forms of student accommodation. Currently large student housing developments are required to provide some affordable housing, but this will not apply to housing on campus or redevelopment sites.

The current Cabinet Member for Planning and Sustainable Transport, Cllr Alex Hollingsworth, described the plan as ‘the culmination of a long period of work between the City Council and partners’ and looks forward to implementing it. Although recognising the compromises made to better provide affordable housing, he believes they have struck the right balance between conservation and development.

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