The Wolfson Economics Prize: Here’s how we double the size of Oxford

Oxford: City of the future. Image: Getty.

Last night, the London think tank Policy Exchange announced the winner of its Wolfson Economics Prize. This year, the £250,000 prize was awarded to whoever it was who came up with the best plan to tackle Britain's housing crisis – specifically, by creating "a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular". Given the widespread opposition of existing homeowners to building anything anywhere in this country, this would be no mean feat.

Historically, “garden cities” have mostly meant either brand new towns, or massive expansions of tiny villages. But the winning team, led by David Rudlin of Manchester-based consultancy Urbed, took a different approach. Prevailing wisdom is that the economy of the future will be all about services, technology, knowledge and so forth. If you're going to build a lot of houses, then, it helps to do so near existing institutions that generate those things. Ideally, that means a university.

So the winning team came up with "Uxcester": a template for doubling the size of any city that already has a population of around 200,000. It's not based on any specific place, but is an amalgam of about 40 of them. Specifically, these ones:

Instead of just extending a city in all directions, Uxcester would mean adding "three substantial extensions", each of which would house around 50,000 people. All these homes would be within 10km from the city centre, and within a 10 minute walk from a tram stop (oh, the plan has trams, too, by the way). As a result, everyone should be able to get into town in half an hour or less.

Between these new developments, there'd be country parks and so forth (the “garden” bit of the garden city). So while we would be building on the green belt, in practice, we'd probably end actually making more green space accessible to the public, as opposed to the current morass of pony clubs and farm land that’s there now.

This design, as shown below, is known as the “snowflake” pattern. Awww.

Actually, there’s even more cutesy jargon in the plan. While the government would assemble the land and provide the infrastructure, it wouldn't actually build most of the housing. Instead, it'd sell it as individual plots and let the private sector do that part. This, Urbed says, is the "trellis" and "vine" model.

In theory, this is all very lovely. In practice, no British city actually wants to double in size, and translating theory into practice is going to be remarkably hard, as Urbed admits:

"We are also aware that by working in a fictional place we are avoiding some of the complexities, both political and practical, that each of these forty small cities face. The danger is that each will say 'that's all well and good but wouldn't work here'.”

So, they decided to test it by looking at a real city. Oxford is meant to be one of the great centres of the urban economy, but it's in danger of falling behind (it only has two science parks; in Cambridge, there are 18). To prevent this horrific fate, Urbed has set out how it could expand:

This plan would mean expanding the nearby settlements of Kidlington and Abingdon, and building on empty land to the east of Oxford. (To the west, this would be harder, so this area's been left untouched.) All these new suburbs would be linked by some kind of tram network, and protected from the elements by a new "flood attenuation system".

There's one other problem of course, brought about by high land prices:

"In the UK most of the money and talent in the house building industry is focused on unlocking the land through a contested planning system; on the Continent it is focused on what is built on that land."

Urbed's solution is to begin the process with a Garden City Act, which would give the government the power to make compulsory purchases of land, and then build on them. This shouldn't be expensive:  because it has no development value, green belt land is relatively cheap.

There would no doubt be political battles to fight before introducing any such policy, not least from the aggrieved homeowners, landowners and golf course who’d complain of the damage done by building new homes. But this proposal does at least move us beyond the fight over whether to build at all, and instead delves into how we might do so. It’s worth thinking about.

 

The other finalists were:

  • "Stoke Harbour", a new city of 144,000 people on Kent's Hoo Peninsula (runner up).

Homelessness charity Shelter, architects PRP, with advice from KPMG, Laing O'Rourke, Legal & General.

  • Four garden city "types", to be used to deliver up to 40 new garden cities over the next 25 years.

Consultancies Barton Willmore, with EC Harris, Pinsent Mason, Propernomics.

  • A new garden city south east of Maidstone Kent, to be served by trains on the High Speed 1 rail route.

Chris Blundell, a director of Golding Homes, writing in a personal capacity.

  • An "arc" of 30-40 new garden cities, of 25,000 people each. These would be built around London, from Southampton to Oxford to Cambridge to Felixstowe.

Wei Yang and Partners and Peter Freeman, in collaboration with Buro Happold Consulting Engineers, Shared Intelligence and Gardiner & Theobald.

All images taken from Urbed's "Uxchester Garden City" report. You can read the rest here.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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