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    The sky’s the limit: Oxford’s dreaming spires and spiralling costs

    Vansh Sharma confronts Oxford’s spiralling cost of living crisis, investigating whether housing supply is a factor

    In the shadows of Oxford’s tallest spire, a burgeoning crisis has made an appearance, eating away at the financial foundations of all who call Oxford home. Amidst the already clustered labyrinth of factors contributing to the cost of living crisis in the United Kingdom, Oxford emerges as a city which has found itself putting salt on an already festering wound. 

    A city steeped in golden history and academic excellence has for long enlivened the people who have had the honour of stepping foot on its hallowed streets. As students find their way through a financial pothole associated with pursuing tertiary education, the current cost of living crisis begs the question: Does the City of Oxford serve as a haven or a hindrance in this financial whirlpool? By detailing the depths of Oxford’s architectural constraints and the “University City” effect, this article aims to detail the multifaceted manner in which Oxford ultimately exacerbates the cost of living crisis. 

    The significance of Oxford’s skyline goes without saying, filled with its “Dreaming Spires” it is without a doubt an enduring symbol of the city’s rich historical and architectural past. A height limit underpins this architectural uniformity and ensures Oxford’s precious skyline heritage is kept. As part of the array of measures implemented to safeguard the iconic spires, the city council incorporated a policy measure known as ‘the Carfax Rule’ into its local plan. This rule derives its name from the extant tower of St Martin’s Church, which occupies a central position at the city’s historic crossroads and is crucial to the composition of the distinctive skyline featuring historic towers and spires. The local plan policy (2001-2016) was strict, stating that no planning permission would be granted for developments within a 1,200-metre radius of Carfax that exceed either 18.2m (60ft) in height or an ordnance datum (height above sea-level) of 79.3m (260ft), whichever is lower. 

    To understand the consequences of the building constraints on the Cost of Living Crisis, it is important to understand its impact on Oxford’s property market and the basic economic laws of Supply and Demand. While the Carfax Rule’s building constraints safeguarded the city’s skyline, it is crucial to recognise its repercussions on the property, housing and rental market and the subsequent financial pressures it thrust upon Oxford’s residents. The preservation of the city’s skyline and unique character limited available land for development, reducing the housing supply and therefore driving up property and rental prices. This elevated cost of housing and commercial properties also has a trickle-down effect on the prices of goods and services where it ultimately impacts the normal consumer, like me and you, in the form of higher prices. The high demand for accommodation in Oxford, engendered by the city’s student population and its spires of dreamy allure, grapples with the scarcity of supply of available rental spaces due to this skyward constraint. Allowing landlords to jack up prices due to the insanely high demand for their rental properties. Consequently, despite its small populace, property and rental prices in Oxford are the fourth most expensive in the United Kingdom with an average rental price of £1,135.02 for a one-bed rental in the city centre. With a population density of 3,509 people per km2 which is eight times more than the national average of 434 per km2 coupled with the building restrictions and the low supply of rental properties, the cause for this is clear as daylight. 

    Moreover, these limitations on building heights did not leave without having an impact on Oxford’s colleges. These colleges confront mounting pressures to furnish affordable housing solutions, but the height limitations impeded the colleges from building cost-effective accommodations within the city’s confines. As a result, students now find themselves having to grapple with the consequences in the form of higher accommodation fees. Colleges are forced to build on the expensive property whilst also having to disperse their students over multiple accommodations throughout the city in order to cut costs. This leads to students having to travel far distances in order to get to their lectures and tutoring sessions. The high property and rental costs in Oxford not only highlight the strong demand for real estate but also demonstrate college inefficiency. Funds spent on acquiring pricey properties and constructing and maintaining suboptimal student housing could have been allocated to salaries or enhancing research and development within the colleges. 

    Oxford’s Cost of living crisis is clear to see. In February, Oxford’s inflation was 10.3%, one of the highest in the whole country. Between Q1 2021 and Q4 2022 Petrol prices rose £12.09, Grocery prices rose £11.39 and Energy prices rose £54.01. Oxford was ranked the second most expensive city to live in the UK, only behind Winchester. Coupled with this is that the city also has the 5th lowest average disposable income. 

    An ancillary factor, which is exacerbating the cost of living in Oxford is the fact that it is a “University City”. Being a university city underpins the constantly fluctuating profitability of a local business during term-time and non-term time periods. As the academic calendar oscillates between term-time and vacation, commercial enterprises witness a stark contrast in revenue generation. Vacation periods yield diminished revenue for businesses as the student populace disperses. Consequently, businesses and landlords are compelled to raise prices in order to generate as much revenue as possible during term-time to counterbalance the lower revenue generation they will undoubtedly see during non-term time periods. Oxford’s current total population stands at 162 222 and its student population is 43 355 with 26 455 being University of Oxford students and 16 900 being Oxford Brookes students. No city can be economically healthy if 30% of its population, which are also its main consumers, are on vacation for 1/3 of the year. This intermittent economic landscape engenders an unstable environment that adversely impacts all inhabitants and is a relevant factor in the cost of living within a city. This is clearly evident as both Oxford, Cambridge and several other cities in the UK and US consistently rank in the top most expensive cities to live in nationally. 

    By allowing buildings to go over the building height limit, the city could restore the housing supply back to a healthy equilibrium and reduce the current property market tension drastically. In turn, this would catalyse a decline in property and rental prices, conferring relief upon businesses and consequently upon students and residents alike. Nonetheless, the urgent need for additional housing and property must be properly balanced with the preservation of Oxford’s architectural and historical past. Any adjustments to the height limitations or construction areas, should be done with good judgement and sense, ensuring that new developments do not mar the city’s unique character and do not take away from Oxford’s iconic allure. This interplay between Oxford’s building limitations and its architectural and historical heritage, coupled and exaggerated with the current cost of living and housing crisis, requires a multifaceted and carefully managed approach. 

    In the end, tackling the cost of living in Oxford calls for an understanding of the multiple factors contributing to the issue. The city’s housing crisis, building height restrictions, resurgence post-global pandemic, an energy crisis, the highest inflationary period in the UK in 40 years, three Prime Ministers, citywide teachers and nurses strikes, and Oxford’s distinct “University City” nature all collectively contributed to making Oxford one of the hardest hit cities in the ongoing cost of living quandary. By acknowledging and confronting these complexities, policymakers, businesses, and educational institutions can collaboratively work towards creating a more equitable and sustainable economic environment for all who call Oxford home.

    Image Credit: Chris Rycroft//CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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