“Lyra’s Oxford is not my Oxford”: paean to a changing city

The view from Oxford Westgate shopping centre. Image: Getty.

Lyra’s Oxford was my Oxford. Or so I thought as a nine-year-old, scribbling words to this effect in a letter to my favourite author Philip Pullman.

Like many other children – and adults – His Dark Materials had captured my imagination from the first page. And having just moved to the city from San Francisco a year previously, I felt like Lyra: an outlier, ready for adventure.

So I ran around the city, peeking into college grounds, playing manhunt in the back alleys of Jericho where I lived, and dropping sticks off bridges over the canal.

The canal in question was home to the Castle Mill Boatyard. In Pullman’s trilogy it is home to the Gyptians who shelter Lyra. Owned by British Waterways, plans to redevelop this historic site have been divisive and ongoing for more than 10 years.

In 2005 Pullman joined protests against turning the boatyard, then home to more than 100 people, into luxury flats, calling the plans “soulless, bland and corporate”. In 2008 these plans were abandoned.

In 2015 I attended a meeting about the redevelopment at nearby St Barnabas School, at which an architect tried to convince locals he would create ‘little Venice’ on the site, and where we sat around squinting at the expensive slivers of sketched brick he was terming “affordable family homes”.

Today, the battle continues. Affordable housing must be key to the £20m redevelopment plan as the city, which is surrounded by a green belt, continues to struggle with a lack of homes. The city council will likely be grappling with this, and issues such as affordable child care, for many years to come, impacting the lives of the Lyras of tomorrow.

Like all teenagers, I stopped playing capture the flag and pretending I had a daemon as I got older. When Borders bookshop and HMV, which as all Oxford kids will know were the only two places to meet friends in town, closed down, it was time to stop loitering and get a job.

Sylvester, the independent gift shop I worked at on Little Clarendon Street, didn’t take long to close when the Oxford College that owns buildings on the street increased its rent.


Last year, Wahoo and The Glee Club, the nightclub and comedy club where I bartended, were given six months’ notice to close by owners Nuffield College. The Oxford Mail called it “the end of an era”. Nearby Warehouse also shut, with The Bridge still rumoured to be clearing out to make way for Nuffield’s plans to develop Frideswide Square, the area near the train station. 

This cluster of bars and clubs, known as Park End, was the heart of Oxford’s nightlife. For those Oxford folk who shun chart toppers and WKDs (although don’t pretend you didn’t go Bridge when you were 18), alternative music venue The Cellar also only just avoided closure this month.

If Lyra’s soul is her daemon, what is the soul of the city? For me, and I would hazard a guess at many of my peers, these local areas, shops, bars and more were where we played, learnt, had our first drink, our first sloppy kiss, came of age and muddled through life. These were the soul of the city.

Lyra’s Oxford was never supposed to be my Oxford, of course. Will’s Oxford, visited mostly in the second book, The Subtle Knife, more closely resembles our world.

These changes to the city have been significant and some of its magic has been lost, but change is not a bad thing. It’s what makes Oxford set to become the first city to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles from its centre, and throw up a myriad of new shops and chain restaurants in the recently opened Westgate shopping centre for teenagers to make their official town meet up spot.

Reading Pullman’s new book released 19 October, La Belle Sauvage, brings back fond memories of my hometown. Malcolm Polstead’s home The Trout is still the place for a pint after a wintry walk across Port Meadow. And Godstow Abbey (Priory in the book) will no doubt still be a hotspot for underage drinking, bonfires and merriment, although University Parks was always our favourite.

Perhaps there is at this moment a nine-year-old boy writing to Pullman to tell him why Malcolm’s Oxford is his Oxford. 

Natasha Turner tweets as @NatashaDTurner.

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There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).