When walking through Oxford on a Saturday afternoon, it is impossible not to feel the sheer physical size of the University in its labyrinthine sprawl of colleges, libraries, and laboratories. Streets appear created without design, instead falling haphazardly as narrow alleyways and chasms between looming battlements and languishing quads. Whilst tell-tale signs of modernity have crept into central Oxford, the “dreaming spires” have not yet relinquished their spatial supremacy.

But it is sometimes easy to forget the level of land ownership that extends outside of the city walls. According to WhoOwnsEngland.org, in 2015 all the colleges were recorded to have an enormous £1.3 billion invested in property and in 1989, with 127,690 acres owned in total. The number of acres in 2017 fell due to sales, but Oxford University’s landholdings today are still considerable, to say the least. Such mass holdings are fairly anomalous nowadays, anachronistic remnants of England’s feudal past.

Neither do the colleges act like normal landlords. My paternal family are Oxfordshire based farmers, and have rented land from Exeter College since 1945. Since the beginning, the relationship has been less one of landlord and tenant, more of friendly association, one that is only ever mentioned with pride. It has been defined by tradition and stability rather than change, and, unlike the uncertainty that many domestic tenants feel, the agreement has always been defined by security. Living in a college-owned village, my aunt said, was to feel that someone clever was in control.

Yet transposing this archaic relationship into the 21st century has proven difficult. While in the past, housing developments on college owned land would never have been considered particularly newsworthy, the current climate has transformed the colleges’ land transactions from routine agreements to moral arbitration.

Colleges have come under increasing pressure to develop their land, not only from their budgets in the face of declining government funding, but also from Oxford City Council, who are constantly struggling to find suitable sites for new homes. Oxfordshire is one of the least affordable counties in the UK, with the city of Oxford in particular having a house price to income ratio of 11.56, according to West Oxfordshire’s most recent Local Plan.

This dearth of affordable housing in Oxford has become increasingly impossible to ignore. Recently, the local lack of affordable housing has been cited as the cause of Westgate finding it difficult to recruit, as potential workers have been priced out of Oxford’s commuter zones. The University themselves have also felt the pressure of Oxford’s housing shortage, with many dons finding it difficult to find their bearings in a highly competitive housing market.

My first encounter with the immense power Oxford colleges can wield was in the village of Lower Heyford, whose surrounding land is partially owned by Corpus Christi. For a village so near to Oxford – just 15 minutes on the train – it is surprisingly sleepy, with a mere 160 houses running alongside the canal path. As a consequence, this nondescript village was considered ideal for expansion.

The proposal put forward by Corpus Christi and the developer Bonnar Allan was posited as being part of the solution to Oxford’s housing crisis. A third of the proposed houses would have been termed “affordable”, that is for sale or rent at 80% of the market value. But the sheer scale of the village’s growth was completely unprecedented. 5000 houses were proposed to be built, a self-contained ‘settlement’ appended onto the village with its own school, doctor’s surgery and transport links. Over 100 members of the public turned out to reject the plans at a parish council meeting, an act of outcry perhaps not usually associated with balding retirees, but one which left Corpus powerless to follow through with its plans.
The arguments of the villagers that led the campaign against Corpus had more than a whiff of Nimbyism, the overriding message of this meeting apparently being ‘you are not wanted here’, according to the council minutes of the event. Such language could easily be construed as a middle-class fear of the riff-raff rather than any legitimate concerns about the integrity of village life. However, it is difficult to contend with the claim that the proposed change was clearly a move of gross insensitivity. The plans themselves were presented with an almost comical tone of false naïvety that grated with many of Heyford’s residents. Some burst into laughter when developers tried to convince them that the additional homes “would not add significantly to traffic flows”, the implication being that everyone would only use the improved train service.

Although the proposed demographic changes to the village could perhaps be considered inevitable, the speed at which such a change was put forward is rather alien to the ideals of co-operation and compromise. Even Corpus Christi, in their attempt to try and pitch the development, described Bonnar Allan as a “new and different kind of benign developer”, an unwitting Freudian confirmation of the villagers’ fears that some developers were acting like cancers, destroying the countryside under a concrete proliferation of identical homes.
Similar struggles between residents and colleges are alarmingly common, and a perceived aggressiveness on the part of the colleges is becoming more and more widely reported.
The Parish of Fyfield and Tubney has been historically linked with St John’s College since its founding in the 16th century, being part of the college’s original endowment. For centuries, the village has been a refuge for St John’s scholars during times of tension in the city, and Fyfield’s small church is lined with commemorations of past fellows.

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Yet development plans for the tiny parish have caused animosity against the college to reach a fever pitch. Some residents have reportedly wanted to sever all visible ties with St John’s, to the point of advocating the renaming of local cul-de-sac St John’s Close. For despite the land around the parish being judged by the local authority as “unsuitable” for development, due to its lack of infrastructure and the land’s current greenfield status, St John’s College has continued to push through planning proposals, with the intention of adding 700 homes to the 185-home parish.

Tim Dougall, a representative of Fyfield Local Action Group (Flag), whose purpose is to prevent what they consider the pernicious impacts of the development, as their website read, “because someone has to”, said that it is primarily the college’s attitude towards the development that has stoked so much local anger. St John’s reportedly continued to insist that the residents’ reception of the planning proposal had been “favourable” despite their clear concern. Dougall also showed Cherwell documents that exhibited the college’s constant evasion of engagement with the local community. Instead of opening up discussion, the President of St John’s urged the campaigners to “liaise and communicate your concerns directly with Lioncourt and the local planning authority”, adopting an approach that has become symptomatic of the shift in St John’s and Fyfield’s relationship.
Much of St John’s planning agenda has been formulated with the help of the public relations company SP Broadway. Martin Harris, an ex-postgraduate researcher in Oxford and a member of the Oxford Green Belt Network, an organisation that campaigns to preserve and prevent the development of Oxford’s Green Belt, has criticised the colleges’ use of such companies at other sites.

Harris said these firms present a “biased case for building over on this important natural capital, denying that this is anti-social vandalism, and claiming that it is necessary to help more people in Oxford find homes nearer to their work.
“That is simply not true, nor is it justified by any objective evidence that I have seen; the motive is financial gain.”

Dougall was also quick to point out what he considers St John’s lack of integrity in promoting the development so forcefully. The college, the wealthiest in Oxford, would stand to make £85 million if the development application is successful, a huge sum that he felt highlighted the paltriness of St John’s spending on bursaries and outreach. St John’s was becoming “a property and investment company with a sideline in education,” he said.
Dougall is not the only one to publicly criticise the colleges. This January, the Oxfordshire Campaign to Protect Rural England announced that “Colleges’ greed puts Green Belt and city at risk”, raising concern over the 17,000 houses that are proposed to be built on Oxford’s Green Belt by 2031. Unlike the land at Heyford and Fyfield, this is land that is protected from development by law, despite the housing shortage in Britain. Christ Church, Magdalen, Brasenose, and Exeter have all come forward with plans to build directly onto these prime Green Belt sites.

Whilst outlying projects in Heyford and Fyfield could be seen as slightly marginal, the green belt, with its proximity to the city centre, is financially secure. Within the green belt, each hectare of farmland is approximately worth £12,000, but the asset value increases enormously if permission to build on the land is granted, rising to £2,000,000 per hectare. Successful planning permission thus massively increases the colleges’ rental income from these sites, with relatively little effort on their behalf – though it is worth noting that the land is only so expensive because of the scarcity of good housing near the city centre.
However, Martin Harris condemned the Colleges’ participation in the development of the green belt as “socially irresponsible”, particularly in regard to its effects on city dwellers’ physical and mental health. By building on the green belt, he explained, problems associated with congestion and air pollution can only be exacerbated.

Harris also explained that the University could even be disadvantaging itself as an institution in the long term by indirectly contributing to Oxford’s environmental decline – though he failed to note the perhaps much greater risk that the housing shortage would jeopardise the University’s ability to recruit the best minds.

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“The campuses of many other universities in the UK, in the EU and in North America confidently offer excellent physical environments for study and learning, which are superior to that now found in central Oxford… this may become an important factor which unfortunately steers away talented but discerning people away from coming to Oxford,” he said.

But where does this leave affordable housing? Whilst the belief that houses need to be built is almost unanimously agreed upon, it is the location that is thus the crux of the issue. Bob Price, Labour city councillor, told Cherwell that he welcomed the colleges’ “growing interest in supporting the growth of new settlements.” He believes that the green belt, far from vivifying, is in fact “throttling” the city, and that by not building on it Oxford would be powerless to find a solution to the burgeoning crisis.

However, there is some question as to whether the developments are really providing the houses for the people who need them. The cost of enforcing below market prices means that building affordable housing is less than attractive from a profit perspective. Although Oxford City Council enforces a rule that 50% of all new developments must be ‘affordable’, this agreement is not binding on developers. As Ryan Hunt of South Oxfordshire District Council told to Cherwell, this figure is in fact fairly nominal and subject to change.
“This is a starting point for discussions between the developer and the council and the number can fall if the said number is considered not viable,” Hunt said.

What Hunt is referring to is the Viability Assessment, which Steve Akehurst in the New Statesman called a “trick” used by developers after a site has been secured as an excuse for building fewer affordable homes. After planning permission has been secured, developers often utilise the Assessment to claim that, due to ‘unforeseen’ circumstances, such as lower housing prices or increased building costs, their profit model no longer supports the original number of affordable homes.

According to Charlie Fisher, the problem is even worse on Green Belt sites because there is so much competition for the land, meaning vast amounts of money are required to secure bids.

He explained to Cherwell that last year an unexpectedly large sum was offered for a University site by developers. Charlie explained that the prospect for affordable housing therefore was discouraging – though he didn’t note the massively inflationary impact of the green belt itself on house prices near Oxford.

“It’s challenging to see how they could afford to pay so much for land AND provide the 50% affordable homes the city requires,” he said.

Fisher is a member of Oxfordshire Community Land Trust, and has been working with Homes for Oxford to provide not only permanently affordable homes in the city, but houses that are energy efficient and looked after by community members themselves.

One of their recent projects has been to bid for the brownfield Wolvercote Paper Mill site in May 2016, which is owned by the University. They planned to build 190 mixed tenure homes with a GP surgery and a lagoon. However, in the end their bid was unsuccessful.
“The problem is that the lawyers interpret charity law as meaning charity land disposals must go to [the] highest bidder,” said Fisher.

Nevertheless, he asserted that Oxford University has a “moral duty” to support affordable housing in Oxford, and should seek to give priority to those bidders that are committed to creative housing strategies.

A spokesperson for Oxford University said: “The University believes that responsible development of housing and employment sites within the green belt can, subject to independent review of their impact, provide for the sustainable growth of Oxford.”

The University’s part in development is thus a complex one, and lined with politically-toxic pitfalls. As an institution, Oxford is always going to be under close attention. If they continue to develop in this more aggressive manner, not only will their reputation with local residents falter, but its actions could also be detrimental to its status internationally.

But if they don’t continue to develop land, the British housing crisis will only get worse. There is not enough brownfield land in Britain to fix the housing crisis – at some point, parts of the Green Belt is likely to have to go.

At a time when the University most requires the support of others, it surely does not seem sensible to alienate those very people who have sustained it for centuries. But the University’s interests are fundamentally linked to a good supply of housing and good access to property. Local residents naturally have a right to protect their communities, but their wishes need to be balanced.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. This is a quite brilliant article and a savage indictment of the way colleges like St John’s have exploited their ‘feudal’ history to line their pockets, despite fierce opposition from their own stakeholders.

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