Town, Gown and Down and Out: No Easy Answers To Oxford’s Housing Crisis
As well as the breath-taking honey-coloured stone, the famous dreaming spires and the tweed-clad Dons, the one thing that many visitors first notice is the number of homeless people on Oxford’s streets. Indeed, the homeless in Oxford are as numerous as they are visible. On any one night in Oxford, there are dozens of rough sleepers, hundreds more in hostels and thousands more ‘sofa surfing’ or sharing three or more to a room (making Oxford the UK’s 4th biggest ‘homelessness hotspot’). Some two miles away on the outskirts of town, the Oxford ring road is choked with stationary traffic at rush hour. Commuting to Abingdon or Whitney is the stuff of misery for a huge proportion of those who work in the city. These two seemingly disparate facts (homelessness and traffic) are, of course, intimately connected: Oxford is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the trouble is, there are no easy solutions. In spite of what commentators on the left and the right might have us believe.
The lack of housing cuts through all sections of society and is not reserved for some imagined underclass. Wages and job security in publishing and academia are enjoying a race to the bottom while property prices are continuing to out-perform the rest of the UK. The average property price is an eye-watering £380,000, while wages hover at around 1/12th of this figure. Simply put, Oxford is the country’s most expensive place to live, in proportion to wages.
The situation for Oxford’s less-well-off is, of course, even worse. The maximum housing benefit is £800 a month for a parent and child. A quick look at Rightmove reveals that the cheapest 2-bed property in town costs £865. You can, as they say, do the math. The Government’s so-called bedroom tax does not get a look-in here.
As we move further down the social scale, beyond town and gown towards down-and-out, the picture is even gloomier. The number of new arrivals at homeless shelters is growing by the day, yet the council has cut the hostel budget by 1/3rd. Many of what me might glibly call ‘normal’ people are now destitute, due to something as simple as falling out with a partner or losing their job. Most of the new arrivals were not into drugs or drink – until they slept rough for a couple of nights, that is.
Housing crisis affects all walks of society: The homeless panhandler, the debt-laden student, the impecunious young professional, the struggling single mum, the miserable commuter. But how can we really, honestly, help them? How about we think about supply and demand? Or, as Oxford Labour party say, let’s build more houses. If you look at a map, much of Oxford’s geographical centre is green. The colleges own plenty of marsh land, pastures and playing fields which could be used to house Oxford’s poor, or so the narrative goes. The City Council has outlined the development (NIMBYS-notwithstanding) of around 10,000 homes in the next fifteen years, including a new garden city at Bicester. Unfortunately, this still leaves a shortfall of 20,000 when compared to its own estimates of population growth.
The council is in constant wranglings with itself over various building projects. It recently tried to build housing association homes for over 3,000 people in a new complex near the Kassam stadium, but it was wisely blocked by the Green party. I say wisely, not because I especially care about the no doubt very beautiful sparrows, earwigs and dormice in the proposed location, but because – I’m sorry to say – it is a fallacy that building houses reduces housing demand. Just as building motorways increases traffic, building more housing attracts more people.
Expanding a city attracts more people. There are already twenty thousand or so miserable commuters who’d love to move back to the city, let alone all the service industry staff – by which, of course, I mean immigrants – who would flock to a growing Oxford if it were to expand. Oxford’s reputation as a city of scientific research and a publishing mecca outwith the academy mean it will always have top people setting up great start-ups. The Universities themselves are, of course, growing exponentially, stuffing in more international students, as well as the home grown elite who are willing to shell out the fees for the word “Oxford” on their degree. Building new developments would merely serve to line the pockets of construction companies and landlords, which I can’t help but think is the real motivation behind the purported ‘public good’ of building more homes.
As is so often the case with macroscopic, top-down thinking, seemingly attractive technological solutions ultimately mask a deeper structural problem. Houses have become properties – commodities to be bought and sold. Student towns, pretty towns and towns near London are even more susceptible to house price inflation than most. Oxford is all three of these. The likelihood of Oxford University’s reputation waning any time soon is pretty slim. It made it through the last 1,000 years in good shape. As long as The West remains the ideological gatekeeper of knowledge, an investment in Oxford property looks like a no-brainer.
In saner countries than Britain, these problems have been solved by introducing rent caps or clamping down on buy-to-let. But there are no guarantees. Rent caps in Berlin held back astronomical rent rises, but the city is becoming less affordable to locals by the day. There really are no simple solutions to Oxford’s housing crisis, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can. We may not be able to make the Government put the needs of its citizens before that of the banks, but each of us can be conscious of the housing needs of those around us and ensure that we act with compassion towards the homeless this Christmas.