Why Cambridge is beating Oxford in the planning race

Oxford’s housing crisis is down to its inability to plan for growth. Cambridge on the other hand is actively engaged with urban expansion, says Ben Flatman

The university cities of Oxford and Cambridge have long and distinguished histories as architectural patrons. But while Oxford may be leading 2-0 in this year’s Stirling Prize shortlist, when it comes to planning the wider built environment, Cambridge is now widely regarded as being well ahead of its old rival. The reasons are complex, but at the heart of Oxford’s current housing crisis is its longstanding inability to effectively plan for growth.

When measured by cost relative to average local wages, buying a home in Oxford is now more expensive than in London. Development in and around the city is constrained by large areas of much-loved meadow and parkland, as well as a restrictive green belt. The city understandably works hard to protect its heritage and environment. Popularity and success breed their own problems, and the appeal of Oxford as somewhere to live and work is now among its biggest challenges, as it struggles to accommodate the huge demand for housing.

True to the city’s history of “town and gown” conflict, Oxford University and the council have long found it impossible to build the necessary long-term consensus about how and where to expand. Back in the 1920s, it was the university, seeking to preserve the semi-rural quality of central Oxford, which blocked plans for major housing expansion, pressure for which was largely coming from the booming Morris car plant in Cowley.

Now, due to the renewed success of the city’s economy, some postgraduate researchers find themselves paying as much as 60% of their annual incomes on rent, and the university is desperate for new housing. Meanwhile, almost 50,000 people travel from outside to work in Oxford each day – a city of just 150,000 inhabitants. Although the university and the city now get along much better, they still struggle to build enough housing to meet the demand from academics, and the wider population. Oxford, which some commentators argue needs 32,000 new homes by 2031, managed to build just 60 new homes in 2014.

Oxford, which some commentators argue needs 32,000 new homes by 2031, managed to build just 60 new homes in 2014

In contrast, Cambridge has been making long-term strategic plans for its growth and expansion for decades. In the 1970s, just as industrial policies and long-term plans were becoming unfashionable at the national level, Cambridge began actively encouraging its academics and research scientists to form spin-off companies, and provided places for them to do this, in dedicated business and science parks around the city. Thanks to this long-term strategy, and the excellence of the university’s research, Cambridge is now a global leader in the technology and bioscience industries.

To meet existing and future demand, Cambridge University is now actively engaged in a major urban expansion, to provide housing for the staff upon which the university and its proliferating business and tech community will depend. The £1 billion North West Cambridge expansion will include housing and facilities for 8,500 residents, with schemes designed by the likes of Maccreanor Lavington and Sarah Wigglesworth.

Not all the fault for these contrasting narratives lies with Oxford. While Oxford is surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside, Cambridge’s flat, fenland setting, makes it (marginally) less contentious when it comes to planning expansion. Also, whereas Oxford has to deal with four neighbouring district authorities, Cambridge only has to work with one – South Cambridgeshire. As is apparent all over England, lack of regional strategic government often prevents intelligently managed growth. There is little requirement and few incentives for the surrounding local authorities to work with Oxford, and so they have largely refused to engage in a wider discussion about how to manage the city’s need for new housing and growth. Ultimately, the long-term consequence is likely to be a lot of poorly planned new housing foisted on the surrounding districts, whether they like it or not.

The situation in and around Oxford is emblematic of Britain’s failed planning system and lack of long-term strategic thinking. On one level, both Oxford and Cambridge are victims of their own success, and are struggling to address the housing and transport challenges that confront any thriving town or city. The principal difference lies in the far-sighted, joined-up strategy that Cambridge University and its partners in local government and business have applied to these very predictable problems.

For years the UK national government has been afflicted by an ideological aversion to proper long-term strategic planning, and has actively obstructed local government from engaging in sensible planning for housing and transport. The result across much of the country has been stunted growth and missed opportunities to create well-designed and sustainable new communities. With Oxford graduate Theresa May now promising a new industrial policy, increased infrastructure spending and a radical solution to the housing crisis, she might do well to take a closer look at how Cambridge has planned for its own success.

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