When the plans for the redevelopment of the Westgate shopping centre were discussed in 2008, they were met by multiple heated town hall debates attended by large crowds of residents, concerned by a multitude of worsening issues in the city.
Those who opposed the plan discussed alternative uses of the additional space, the most pressing of which was affordable housing.
Fast forward nine years, and the problems facing the city and its housing market are even more severe. Rents have increased continuously, and the number of rough sleepers in the city has more than tripled.
In hindsight, it seems that the space which is now dedicated to a high-end shopping centre should instead have been used to mark a much-needed step in the right political direction. The uncomfortable truth is that affordable accomodation, or even council housing, may have eased the pressure on local tenants, but it certainly wouldn’t have boosted Oxford’s commercial or aesthetic image in the way that an enlarged Westgate shopping centre does.
It’s true that the developers did include new flats in the redevelopment plans – 59 flats were built as part of the new site.
The only problem with this newly created space is that a one or two-bedroom flat would set you back between £350-£500k, extortionate figures which even break council provisions mandating that a balance be struck between affordable housing and expensive construction projects.
According to the Oxford Mail, the new high-end flats featuring private balconies and rooftop gardens have their most promising clientele in the parents of university students, those looking to house their children and provide themselves with a long-term real estate investment.
The terrible cynicism of this is that this space could have been used to remedy the effects of student housing and its ever-growing demand for facilities on local residents.
Instead, it is now being used to further a culture of monetised student living, meanwhile ignoring the needs of ordinary citizens.
Housing conflicts on Iffley Road were a painful reminder of the role that the University and colleges play in Oxford’s housing crisis, occupying an increasingly large portion of the scarce space near the city centre. The acquisition of new spaces exclusively dedicated to students are putting an additional strain on the rent market in the city.
While more students live as close to the city centre as possible, more permanent residents get pushed to the outskirts, feeling increasingly overlooked. Oxford is known as a student city, but moves such as Westgate further the narrative that permanent residents are not a priority.
Heralding the Westgate as a miracle for jobs and opportunities is misplaced. Among other reasons, it ignores its social consequences and overlooks the fact that the ones hit the hardest by a lack of affordable space in Oxford are not those who will be able to indulge themselves in this new consumerist utopia.
Only a minority of students will be able to afford these kinds of flats, but all share a responsibility for colleges’ housing policies and our impact on the local community as a group of temporary residents and consumers.
The new Westgate centre projects a problematic message: profits can be made from the city’s students, and they are willing to ignore local communities in order to continue a pattern of frivolous consumption and luxury living.
If we do not acknowledge our responsibility for our local environment, if we don’t challenge both our institutions and ourselves in how we use the limited space this city can provide, we are complicit in the social cleansing of Oxford, driving many further towards the outskirts.
Oxford’s new social and commercial hub comes at a cost. We should all acknowledge that a large part of the local community is paying a price for our casual spending.