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How can Oxfordshire harness its booming economy to benefit businesses and residents alike?

OxLEP’s debate explores why a ‘sense of place’ is key to the county’s success

Written by: Andrew Baud Photography by: ©Milton Park

There is much to celebrate in Oxfordshire, particularly from an economic perspective with more than 40,000 jobs and hundreds of new businesses created during the past five years, plus support for up to 100,000 new homes. But how does this success translate into creating vibrant, distinctive and practical business and residential communities within the county? In tandem with this, is it important to instil a sense of ‘place’ and identity for Oxfordshire in the face of such significant change?

To discuss some of these issues, the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (OxLEP), which champions the county’s economic potential, recently hosted a Q&A event called ‘The importance of ‘Place’ for Oxfordshire’. The panel for the event, which was held at Milton Park in Oxfordshire, comprised a group of business experts who are all working on projects within the county.

The panel chair was Matthew Battle, Managing Director, UK Property Forums, and the speakers were: Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive, OxLEP; Philip Campbell, Commercial Director, MEPC; Placi Espejo, Head of Commercial Sales and Marketing, Heyford Park Management; Piers Slater, Chief Executive, Reef Estates.

Is a ‘sense of place’ important for Oxfordshire?

Philip Campbell said: “Place is absolutely essential for what we do. If we can create a greater place, then we can attract more people and businesses to it. Place is an evolving thing; it’s not fixed. For example, if you rewind 100 years, Milton Park was a farm and now, after many changes over the years, it has become an edge of town science and business community.”

Asked if Milton Park was just a brand, or if people had an emotional attachment to it, Philip said: “I think it’s a brand, but I think you can have an emotional attachment to being here. We have companies here that span out of the university, probably close to a quarter of a century ago now and are still here. They are some of the largest employers in Oxfordshire.”

Piers Slater said: “Oxfordshire is so well placed, with the anchor of Oxford city centre; the history; the university; the River Thames; the Chilterns; the Ridgeway; the transport infrastructure to Heathrow and London; it’s a great place.”

He added: “In Oxfordshire, we are developing a Marriott Hotel, which will open in September. We’re working on a new large science park district just north of Didcot, which will complement the great work at Milton Park, Harwell and Culham. We are also developing a student mixed use scheme in the centre of Oxford.”

Placi Espejo explained how Heyford Park aims to balance the heritage value of the site with the needs of commercial technology businesses and residential properties. She said: “To make a sense of place is to make happy communities. Whether they are business related or residential; whether we are creating a new community hub, it is that quality of life that is important, being happy, waking up in the morning with a smile on your face”

Nigel Tipple explained the importance of the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal -a multi-million pound Government funding package – to create a sense of place in Oxfordshire. He said: “Businesses and communities are symbiotic; they’ve got to be one and the same thing. So, it’s important to put place-making at the heart of the growth deal. We’ve worked with local partners to secure a commitment for a joint spatial plan for the county, not five individual districts.

“We also have a commitment to develop a strategic infrastructure plan, which we are already well advanced on. We look at everything from road and rail to broadband, school, education, health facilities, so it’s a much broader connecting place agenda, underpinned by productivity and growth around business.”

How can we make Oxfordshire’s housing affordable for young, working people?

Piers Slater said: “I don’t think we have a lack of low cost housing for people who are disadvantaged. However, I think that finding the right housing for young, working people, who have recently finished college, is difficult. We really need strategies and flexibility within the planning system to provide the right type of housing for these people. Oxfordshire needs to think about its affordable housing strategy. Living in Summertown is about as expensive as living in Clapham, which is bonkers.”

Nigel Tipple said: “It costs somewhere between 14 and 17 times the average salary to buy a house in most parts of Oxfordshire. We’re not going to change that overnight, but the critical issue for me is that there’s already evidence of accelerated housing delivery which is part of the challenge. It’s not just about getting planning consents, getting them out of the ground had also been a challenge. However, land banking – i.e. very large areas of land held within single ownerships has been, and continues to be, a challenge.

“There’s a need for key worker housing, whether it’s health or university type key worker accommodation or whether that’s a broader affordability challenge around shared ownership and social rented accommodation. There’s a real commitment to deliver social housing, with some local authorities starting to look at new development companies. We’re also looking at other solutions for the medium term. We know we have to do things differently and it’s a journey that we are now on.”

Details of the next Oxfordshire event can be found at www.oxfordshirelep.com/qandaevent