Oxford is one of the most unaffordable places to live in Britain, if you compare average house prices to average wages. That makes for a good headline, but that’s not the whole story.
First, Oxford has quite a lot of large houses. North Oxford was a very early suburb, and the properties were built with married dons (university lecturers) in mind, probably with a servant or two, and not to the minimum allowed by the byelaws of the time, as was the norm elsewhere. This distorts the average house price. There may also be differences in how frequently properties are sold (the more expensive houses may change hands more frequently). So I would advise against basing any analysis on average house prices. There are a large number of rather cheaper houses in the less leafy parts of Oxford.
Second, Oxford has a large rented sector. There is still council housing, and a high proportion of new developments have to be for social rent. The colleges own and rent houses to their staff, and there are large blocks of student and nurses accommodation. Young professionals generally live in shared houses. The rents are undoubtedly high, and linked to house prices, but the links are indirect.
Third, for decades, the housing strategy has been to direct new housing development to the second tier of towns in the county. Oxford and Abingdon are surrounded by green belt, and the bulk of the housing development has been concentrated on Witney, Bicester, Didcot and Banbury. So looking at the Oxford housing market in isolation gives a distorted picture. Of people who travel to work in Oxford, roughly 42,000 live in the city, and 45,000 commute in from outside.
While housebuilders tend to focus on where to build houses, the reason we have a green belt is that there are two other big factors: where people work, and how they commute. If we just let the market take its course, we’d get more and more low-density housing and employment on the outskirts of the city, and the only feasible way to commute would be to drive.
So, how well has this “Country Town” housing strategy worked? Lots of houses have certainly been built, and lots of people commute. But the country towns aren’t full of Oxford commuters, by any means; only about 15-20% of their commuters travel to Oxford. Their existing housing stock could do much more to provide for Oxford workers. Why doesn’t it? Why do people try to live in Oxford rather than commute from Bicester? Oxford doesn’t really have a housing crisis, it has a commuting crisis.
As I’ve previously described, the time has come for a radical improvement to public transport, by blocking one of the roads into the centre to private cars, and giving the buses a clear run from Abingdon and Witney. It perhaps also suggests that concentrating development on rail-served towns (Didcot, and soon, Bicester) might be sensible.
But it’s not just a commuting problem – Didcot has long had a half-hourly rail service to Oxford. Perhaps the rail service is too infrequent – maybe there needs to be a bigger concentration of demand to help justify a more-frequent service. Perhaps onward connections in Oxford (to the large employment centres in Headington and Cowley) need to be faster, by allowing buses to run two-way through Queen St. Perhaps we need to do more to discourage driving, probably by further restricting workplace car-parking. And perhaps Didcot and Bicester could do with being larger, and having a bit more city-appeal.
So rather than build on the green belt, Oxford needs to crack its commuting crisis, so that people who live in the neighbouring towns can commute easily. New development should focus on Didcot and Bicester – these are the only places that are ever likely to have frequent rail connections to Oxford. Didcot, in particular, could expand and integrate with neighbouring employment sites, though Bicester currently seems to be keener. The more that workplace parking is restricted, in every location, the quicker we are likely to get to a well-functioning public transport plus walking and cycling model. As Oxford has shown, this approach makes for a very popular place to live.