A True Leader

Oxford was last year ranked, for the second consecutive year, by PwC as the UK’s highest ranking city in their recent Good Growth for Cities report. Although it’s easy to pick holes in what is wrong with Oxford, it’s just as easy to overlook the long list of positives.

Many of the problems Oxford faces are a by-product of growth. Bob Price has been all too familiar with balancing the growth of Oxford with the challenges that growth brings and is one of the main reasons behind why Oxford is such a leading example for other UK cities. B4’s Richard Rosser met with the outgoing Leader of Oxford City Council to reflect on his action packed and ultimately glowing contribution to Oxford’s economic development.

Written by: Richard Rosser Photography by: Rob Scotcher

Bob Price is the city’s longest serving councillor and has led Oxford City Council since 2008. When announcing his retirement as leader in 2017 he said that he was turning 70 years old in May 2018 and it was ‘a good age to retire’. Bob was also quoted as saying: “After 35 years representing my local community in Grandpont, New Hinksey and St Ebbes, and 12 years as the Leader of the Labour group, it feels like a good moment for a change of pace. If I am averagely lucky, I hope to be able to find more time over the next decade doing more of the many things that I enjoy.”

Oxford has been more than averagely lucky to have had the benefit of Bob’s wisdom and support for the past 35 years and all of us at B4 would like to thank Bob for his support for B4 and the Business in Oxford event which we established together five years ago.

So what have been the stand out moments for Bob in his time at Oxford City Council?

“My tenure as leader coincided exactly with the period of austerity following the financial crash of 2008. In that time, we have lost £8 million of government grants and the whole context has been one of cuts in the public sector. I think our greatest achievement as a council has always been to ride through that period, to build a very financially stable council, and to replace the income lost in government grants. We have worked hard to change the culture of the council and to create a very strong, customer orientated organisation. I’m quite proud of what has been achieved over that 10 year period, and I think I’m handing on a strong legacy to the next generation.”

The Council’s achievements have also been recognised nationally, as Bob explains. “We won the Council of the Year Award in 2014 and we won the Council Service Provider of the Year Award in 2015. That was certainly an indication of what we had achieved in that period. There has been a significant change in the way the council works and is organised, and what we’ve achieved reflects those changes. More recently we have created two wholly owned subsidiary companies which will be trading in housing and in the wider service sector – a completely new culture.”

During Bob’s time at the Council he has seen and met thousands of people, but I ask him what the stand out moments were. “There are a lot of memorable moments, but going back to when I was Deputy Lord Mayor and the Freedom of the City ceremony for Nelson Mandela, that ranks very highly. President Mandela was with us for about three and a half hours and I was on my own with him for an hour or so in the Lord Mayor’s Parlour.To have that experience was pretty remarkable. But, of course, there are a lot of other highlights. Opening Westgate last October was a great experience. Having seen it through the planning and development process, finally walking in to see how impressive it is certainly ranks as a very memorable moment.

“I think, from a personal point of view, getting the Housing and Growth deal with government across the line after seven or eight months of really difficult negotiations has been a tremendous achievement for the whole county. We are recognised by government as a ‘can do’ county with huge economic potential, excellent co-operation between the councils and we are achieving a lot together, so that’s been, again, a real breakthrough that we will build on for the next ten years.”

Many B4 readers will be all too familiar with Oxford’s growing pains: an over-burdened transport structure; a rising cost of living; shortage of skilled labour; social problems such as homelessness and a widening gap between the haves and the have nots. But we are fortunate, when compared to most other areas in the UK, to enjoy the riches of a county which we all too often take for granted. I ask Bob what he feels makes Oxford unique.

“I think the thing about Oxford that makes it rather special is the fact that it’s the city in the UK with the highest proportion of people with high level qualifications. This means that it’s a place with a lot of people with a good understanding of what’s going on in the city and a wish to have their point of view heard. They are happy to challenge their council and the other organisations in the city, but at the same time they are willing and able to put time and effort into our many voluntary organisations. When I was Lord Mayor I was really impressed by the range and the quality of what the voluntary sector does in the city. The combination of intelligence, engagement, commitment and compassion makes Oxford a very special place compared to many other parts of the country.”

Bob also acknowledges that there’s been a real step change in the way that businesses interact with the voluntary sector and how it engages, not just from the point of view of the senior members of businesses, but also their employees, more actively with social enterprises and charities.

“Looking back on the ten years I’ve been leader and just before that as well, there’s been a sea change in the relationship been business and the rest of the community. It’s not just the voluntary sector that has seen that difference. The level of charitable giving, the level of volunteering, the level of integration of objectives between business and the wider sectors of charity and voluntary groups has been remarkable in that ten year period. You’ve only got to go to events like Business in Oxford to see the range and quality of businesses engaging with the wider community. It has been a very important period of change in the county.”

As already highlighted, Oxford ranked first for city growth in the UK in the 2017 PwC report and second for growth potential in the recent Arcadis report. But whilst Oxford has a lot going for it, I ask Bob what his concerns are for the future of Oxford in coping with and managing growth.

“You mentioned earlier the issue of transport and I think a really big challenge as we expand as a county in employment, in population and in economic growth is to ensure that people can move around in a non-polluting way. The concern I have is that we won’t get the level of resource, despite government wishing to provide that, which will genuinely allow us to tackle those transport issues. We will have to find ways round those constraints,.

“The second issue is one regarding social policy. There is a rising level of homelessness throughout the country and cities like Oxford, which are relatively affluent, are attractive to people looking for support and help. We have a very good provision for homeless people in the city but we will need a significant intervention by the government to really defeat homelessness to stop that social evil continuing.

“Linked to that is the drug problem. The police are doing a great job in tackling drug dealing, but they lack resources and the challenge is growing.. So, transport, drugs and homelessness are, in my opinion, some of the biggest challenges for the city in the next few years..”

Bob and I talked about his final days in office post the elections and how he would feel in the aftermath, leaving meetings with tasks to do which he wouldn’t be in a position to influence. Rest assured Bob will have his means of getting his point across!

“I know that there are ways of getting my views across after I’ve left the council. There are lots of very open channels for consultation and after so many years, I have a lot of good contacts across the city. So ,if I do feel strongly about something, I’m pretty certain I can get my views into the mix!. On planning issues in particular, I’m keen to work with the Civic Society as they have a very constructive voice in dialogue with the council about planning matters.”

Bob will undoubtedly be a man in demand and will have been asked to join countless committees, boards and support groups. So, what plans does Bob have as he prepares for life post Oxford City Council?

“I’m joining the board of both the Pegasus Youth Theatre and the Oxford Playhouse so I’m looking forward to a deeper involvement with the arts world. I am also continuing in my role as a Development Trustee in getting the City of Oxford Museum renovated and rebuilt. We received a very large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and we are now into the phase of designing the new galleries in conjunction with the people that will be using them….the people of the city. There will be a year of planning followed by a year or so of construction. It’s going to be a really important project for the city and the outcome will be a brilliant new museum showcasing the history of the city – not the University!- for the people of Oxford, and for our many visitors. The educational facilities will be extensive and provide great opportunities for people of all ages to see and handle artefacts and archives. The galleries on the ground floor will be fully accessible and highly interactive. It’s going to be very exciting.”

In closing I ask Bob what his hopes are for the future of Oxford and how he intends to spend what spare time, if any, he has with the family.

“Firstly, I hope we can tackle the city and county’s transport and related housing issues through the mechanisms that we have created through the Housing and Growth Deal. My second hope is that we are able to genuinely tackle the long-standing social problems of inequality and homelessness, and the associated problems of inequalities of health and educational achievement. There is a strong partnership shaping up between the county and ourselves and other providers to tackle those issues, so I don’t feel pessimistic about it. The problems are recognised and accepted, and we all want to do something about it, but we really do need to crack on to make Oxford a great city for everybody, not just for 70% who have good qualifications and good jobs.

“I must add that B4 performs a really important role and Business in Oxford is the most important meeting now for all the businesses in the city and you have created something which has been a tremendous contribution to bring people together, so I hope I’ll continue to work with you on that for many years to come.

“On a personal note, Jo and I have lots of places around Europe and the wider world that we would like to visit and, of course, there are still half of the Lake District’s Wainwright Peaks that remain to be conquered! So don’t worry, I will be keeping busy on all fronts!”

Thank you Bob for your support for B4 and Business in Oxford and we look forward to thanking you formally at the closing session of BIO2018 on 23rd May at The King’s Centre.

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