Westgate shuts for renovation

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Stores at the Westgate Centre closed on Sunday 24th January ahead of the 40-year-old shopping centre’s redevelopment. Many of the other stores within the centre have closed over the past few months because of the phased closure plan. 

Primark will remain open until February 13th, when the whole centre will close to the public. Sainsbury’s and the public library will remain open throughout the duration of the building work. 

The full redevelopment is set to cost £500 million, and will include the creation of some new homes. The centre itself is likely to open in October 2017. The plans, which were released in December, also include the creation of around 1,000 new cycle spaces, slightly fewer than the 1,500-2,000 that were said to be necessary by local campaigners. 

The plans for the new Westgate Centre estimate it will create £440 million worth of investment and create a total of over 4,000 jobs. Sara Fuge, Development Manager for the Westgate Alliance, told Cherwell, “Westgate Oxford will bring a new, world-class shopping and leisure destination to Oxford. Once open in October 2017, it will transform the west end, creating significant benefits for the local economy and boosting footfall to the city, benefitting the area as a whole.” Once finished, it is said that the Westgate will also feature a cinema and an area for rooftop dining. The alliance behind the redevelopment also plans to work with the city and county council to raise awareness of the jobs available.

However, some students have expressed concern about the cost and effects of the redevelopment plan. One third-year lawyer remarked, “So many people are currently priced out of living in the city, and surely such a huge shopping attraction will only heighten this problem. Although it might create jobs in the long run, it’s hard to see how anyone will be able to both live and work in Oxford.”

On Your Doorstep, OUSU’s homelessness campaign, told Cherwell, “Oxford is already a completely unaffordable city for many, with the average house costing 11 times the average salary. Particularly after yesterday’s decision to cut £69 million from the county council budget, Oxford’s priority should be building more affordable housing, not another shopping centre.” This comes after a protest on Tuesday against the local council’s choice to cut money from the budget for homelessness services in Oxfordshire.

Other students were much happier about the development taking place. Louise Taylor, a third-year historian, said, “I’m very happy that Oxford will finally be getting a good shopping centre, but sad I won’t be here to actually enjoy it. I think it’ll make Oxford a much nicer city; it lagged behind quite a bit with shops. Although I was especially sad about the loss of Poundland; it was amazing for trashing supplies. 

“At least Primark will stay open.”

Analysis – Harry Gosling

The redevelopment of the Westgate Centre is now underway, and in many ways this represents an exciting time for Oxford. The city is booming, and as it does so, it is attracting more investment and generating more opportunities for Oxford’s residents. The new Westgate will undoubtedly have significant economic benefits: it will create jobs, boost spending and attract yet more people to Oxford. 

Yet the redevelopment of the shopping centre is also emblematic of a wider, perhaps somewhat concerning trend, in many urban centres: gentrification. This trend, grounded in the economic attractiveness of urban city centres, is causing property prices to rise and forcing lower-income families and small to medium size businesses out of city centres, resulting in a rising proportion of wealthier residents in city centres.

For some, gentrification is largely inevitable – a result of the economic and social climate in urban environments. City centres are often seen as the engines of economic growth: for individuals, cities off er jobs and opportunities aplenty; for businesses, city centres off er large and often growing markets in which to sell their products. These two processes mutually reinforce each other too. Cities often attract the youngest, the brightest, and the most ambitious; London is an obvious example of this phenomenon. Businesses are therefore attracted to city centres not just to sell their products, but to recruit the best talent too.

The result of these two forces is rising demand, particularly for property, and soaring prices in city centres. Yet we are well within our right to question whether this process of gentrification really is as inevitable as some suggest. In particular, could we, should we, be doing more to halt the process of gentrification?

Many would argue that we should be making more of an attempt to halt urban flight, and the gentrification of many parts of Jericho and other parts of Oxford. Yet whilst the redevelopment of the Westgate Centre is indeed indicative of the broader process of the gentrification in Oxford, it should not necessarily be the focus of student attention.

We must move beyond the familiar stereotypes of gentrification. A new Westgate Centre with more expensive shops means exactly that: a redeveloped shopping centre with expanded shopping choices. Other factors, such as inadequate levels of housebuilding, strict planning laws and vacant land, play a considerably more significant role in limiting affordable housing.

Students should welcome the redevelopment of the Westgate Centre – it’s a sign that Oxford is succeeding economically and it will undoubtedly improve and expand the choices available to students. Embracing the new Westgate Centre does not imply an ignorance of the issues surrounding gentrification and unaffordable housing. These issues have their own causes, distinct from the redevelopment of Oxford’s main shopping centre.

The notion of gentrification is not an illusion; small businesses and lower-income families are being forced out of some areas of Oxford as a result of the rising cost of living. This is unfair, and the Oxford student body must do more to speak out against unaffordable housing in Oxford. Whatever the answer is to slowing, if not halting the process of gentrification in Oxford, criticising the redevelopment of the Westgate is certainly not the solution.

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