Oxford’s local council acknowledges that in the year between April 2013 and last April not a single affordable home was built in the city.
In a city where average house prices are just shy of £270,000, this is a big problem. More than 45,000 people commute to Oxford daily, many travelling because they cannot afford to live near their workplace. The roads are congested and many people find themselves, in their 30s, living in houseshares. The reasons for this situation are complex and solutions seem remote.
At a branch of the estate agents Breckon & Breckon, in the high street, a two-bedroom house in Cowley, just south of the city centre, is on the market for £300,000. Anneka Smith, who works there, says this is the going rate. “When places come along that are cheaper it’s a bit of a bunfight.”
First-time buyers, investors and second-steppers – people trying to move up the property ladder – are all vying for properties and supply is short.
Lucy Hoult, an actor, grew up in Oxford but recently moved to Bicester. “There was no chance of me buying in Oxford,” she said. “I don’t think anyone on a normal wage can.”
Lynsey Bennett, who owns a home in north Oxford, says those buying second or third homes have helped raise prices. “There is affordable housing but only if you’re on a double professional income.”
Alexis, who works in a frameshop in the covered market, lives in a housing association property in the city. “I’m not in the best paid job in the world and at the moment getting into the housing market in Oxford is not an option,” he said. He thinks he is lucky to be in affordable property, but rents are rising by 3% a year and he is not sure how long he will be able to continue living here. “I have in the back of my mind that I have to move out of Oxford at some point.” Buy-to-let investors are also helping to push up prices, as too are families of wealthy students buying properties for their offspring to live in. Meanwhile nearby places like Kidlington are rising in value as rail connections to London improve.
As an Oxford resident almost all his life Alexis would benefit from the idea of Sir Michael Lyons, who prepared Labour’s housing report, that new homes be marketed first only to local people and those who want houses as homes rather than investments. But what happens to newbuild properties is pretty academic here.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson described the London skyline as changing so quickly “it’s like an accelerated David Attenborough film about the return of spring to the Canadian tundra” but in Oxford, property developments seem to move slowly for some. There are no cranes amid the dreaming spires, and few new homes being created within the city limits.
Lizzie Williams, 31, who works as an email marketing manager at Oxfam, pays £580 a month in rent to live in Cowley, which gets her a room in a houseshare with four others. “It’s normal to houseshare here – it’s very common among people my age.” Williams rented alone when she first moved to the area as she didn’t know anyone. “I had to move money out of savings to afford the rent which was £825 before bills. It wasn’t a long-term solution.” Oxford seemed to have two types of home – family houses and rentals – neither of which would suit her. “There just seems to be a lack of one and two-bedroom, entry level homes,” she said.
The local council has identified a need for 30,000 new homes to serve the city, but its deputy leader, Ed Turner, a commissioner on the Lyons report, admits they would “struggle to find space for 10,000 at the outside”. In 2013/14 Oxford’s housing stock gained 70 new dwellings, although the council said this was a “very short-term dip” and that planning permission was granted for 1,350 homes. At that rate it would take 22 years to put up the 30,000 houses. Turner said he hoped that the Lyons review’s recommendations would make a difference to the city’s housing situation. He has already been involved in a development where people were barred from buying more than one home, and he welcomes the suggestion that homebuyers get preference over investors.
However, he said Oxford had some big issues to address: “We have a very tightly drawn urban boundary and there are problems with that.”
Maps of the city from 100 years ago show plans for it to grow sustainably had not happened, said Charlie Fisher, a project manager at Oxfordshire Community Land Trust. This had led to “land shortage and a dire land value problem”.
Fisher, who cannot afford to live in town, said the dearth of available land made it hard for developers to find plots where they could achieve the 20% margins they generally wanted, which meant community, non-profit alternatives needed to be considered.
However land prices also limit alternative provision of homes. Fisher said he was involved in a community land trust that intended to begin work on six housing units next year. The homes, to be run and let through a co-op, will be energy efficient and rents will be set at 80% of the market rate – the official definition of affordable, but still out of reach of many people who work here.
Rents are generally high, said Turner. If you put the local housing allowance for Oxford, at present £826 a month for a two-bedroom home, into the website Rightmove, he said, “you will find no accommodation at all”.
What could improve matters for Oxford, Turner said, would be Lyons recommendations on how councils work together and the role of the government. Oxford city council had plans to create 4,000 homes to extend the city southwards, but these homes were on land within the sphere of South Oxfordshire district council, and it had rejected the scheme.
Lyons is advising that neighbouring councils work together to meet housing need and that cities have a “right to grow”. Where councils do not cooperate the secretary of state would have the power to step in.