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.

Birmingham’s planners display a shocking lack of care for their city

Just months after the bulldozers moved in to demolish John Madin’s Central Library, Birmingham is facing another blow to its already dire reputation for conservation. This time, the city is scrapping three of its own conservation areas, including one that covers a cluster of arts and crafts houses in and around Barnsley Street. The loss of heritage value in these areas, which has led to their re-designation, has often been exacerbated by the inaction of the city council itself.

The city’s planners seem to have enthusiastically approved the demolition of a large section of the Barnsley Street area to make way for a depressing-looking “care” home. Andy Foster, author of the Pevsner guide to Birmingham, says the city’s planning department “either isn’t interested in conservation, or doesn’t know what conservation is”.

In 2014 the Kerslake Review made a damning indictment of Birmingham City Council, highlighting its silo culture and deafness to dissenting and external voices. Not much seems to have changed since, but it wasn’t always like this. After the massive destruction that afflicted the city in the 1960s and 70s, there was a brief respite to the demolition. Under the leadership of Sir Dick Knowles from 1984, Birmingham briefly forged a path as an early British pioneer in cultural regeneration. Symphony Hall was built to accommodate Simon Rattle’s ambitious plans for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the city took radical steps to reinvigorate its streets and key public spaces.

As the Kerslake Review acknowledged, “30 years ago Birmingham City Council was at the cutting edge of innovation in local government”. A long tradition of not having a senior city architect was reversed when Les Sparks was appointed director of planning and architecture in 1991. During this period the city woke up to its past mistakes and actively sought out those dissenting voices from outside. The 1988 Highbury Initiative, attended by Will Alsop and Terry Farrell, helped to set clear priorities for planning and development that made a major contribution to the city’s future direction.

A combination of intelligent planning and enlightened developers led to the creation two contrasting but equally successful schemes in the shape of the Custard Factory and Brindleyplace. The former helped kick-start Glenn Howells’ young practice, and the latter included Levitt Bernstein’s IKON Gallery, and a jewel-like café by CZWG.

The Custard Factory continues to thrive as a rare example of the creative reuse of a former industrial building in Birmingham. Meanwhile, many of the lessons learned at Brindleyplace were adopted and developed further by Allies & Morrison in their masterplan for Argent at Kings Cross. Sadly, rather than raising the design bar within Birmingham itself, this period in the city’s history now seems to stand as a stark reminder of how poorly the city has been managed since then.

So what explains the currently rudderless direction of the city? Andy Foster sees the current trajectory as a return to form, with Birmingham adopting its default approach to planning. “Any development is good development” seems to be the city’s mantra, while the quality of the wider urban landscape is largely forgotten. Tellingly, organising the next trip to Mipim appears to have become the extent of the council’s long-term planning.  

Birmingham desperately needs better leadership and management. But it also needs a prouder and more ambitious vision for its built environment. The autodidact Dick Knowles owned a shelf full of Pevsner guides, but there is little to suggest the city’s more recent leadership has had any genuine interest in architecture. The recent Big City Plan was a well-intentioned attempt to set a new trajectory, but seems to have lacked the strong underlying urban design principles, and perhaps the critical external voices, that helped make the Highbury Initiative a success.

Too often fixated on big projects, Birmingham needs to refocus on the finer grain of the city. Its local neighbourhoods desperately need nurturing to help release their potential. Many struggling cities around the world have successfully transformed their fortunes by realising the value of their own existing built environments. Entire cultural economies have been incubated and flourished within the types of post-industrial landscapes that used to define the rich texture of much of central Birmingham. And countless communities have thrived within the context of well-designed historic housing. Valuing what’s left of its sadly diminished built heritage might be a good place for Birmingham to start turning things around.