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.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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