Why is Oxford, Britains most unaffordable spot?
There are two several reasons it did not grow nearly as much as many other comparable cities, and with large gaps between its spines of expansion, quite aprt from the constraints of rivers and marshes, after all many similar cities simply leapfrogged these constraints. Oxford did expans rapidl;y in the motor industry years but from a low base and as the historic centre was the service center in a lopsided and limited way.
Georgian and Regency terraces, so important a feature of many towns, are thinly represented in Oxford, presumably because of the city’s lack of economic growth, and the requirement at that time that dons remain unmarried and resident in college…
Until the development of North Oxford later in the century there was no suitable land available for the building of middle-class housing, and the middle classes remained in the centre or lived outside the city while working-class housing was concentrated in areas that were often low-lying, ill-drained, and subject to flooding.
It is a popular myth that dons drove the Victorian expansion of North Oxford, rather they slowed it down as a lack of a market led to its slow development.
It is a misconception that North Oxford grew up ‘when the dons were released from celibacy and became prolific’.By the time dons were allowed to marry, following the Royal Commission of 1877, a large part of North Oxford was already developed, and the movement of dons out of college was in any case a gradual process.
2. Plans taking 20 years
Things never change
The floodlands of the river Thames and Cherwell restricted development and made town planning, especially when traffic became heavier, extremely difficult. A town planning sub-committee set up by the council in 1921 submitted proposals from time to time, including a plan to connect South and East Oxford by road and bridge, but the first comprehensive survey of the city was conducted in 1931 by the Oxfordshire Regional Planning Advisory Committee, representing the county council and other planning authorities. That report was the first to anticipate the need for expansion to be controlled, and over the next forty years it was followed by a continual succession of surveys, inquiries, and reports, including the seminal Oxford Replanned (1948) of Dr. Thomas Sharp. There was some agreement on the need to control growth, to provide services for the population east of Magdalen Bridge, to complete the ring road…. There was no agreement over details: the city’s own proposals omitted the suggestion of Sharp and others for a relief-road across Christ Church meadow…The Minister of Local Government and Housing, however, insisted on the inclusion of reliefroads, thereby precipitating twenty years of proposals, counter-proposals, decisions, and reversals that at times made the city a national laughing-stock.
In terms of Sharp’s plans, this is probably his defining work. Certainly he developed an attachment to Oxford, moving his home and office there and remaining engaged in its planning issues for much of the rest of his life (particularly through a series of public inquiries on roads) ..
Sharp’s ‘Prefatory Note’ very explicitly recognised the political difficulties of preparing a plan for Oxford referring, for example, to ‘the internecine struggle which still goes on in Oxford’ (p.11). This became all too evident in 30 years of subsequent struggles of road proposals. It was clear also in competing ideas about how Oxford should evolve. Some argued that eastwards industrial expansion around Cowley should lead to the creation of a new civic and commercial centre and historic Oxford should become essentially a University quarter. Sharp opposed these ideas in typically forthright terms.
Described as ‘largely a work of preservation’ (although ‘one piece of surgery is required to relieve the city from a pressure on its spinal column which will otherwise paralyse it’) (p.16) the plan was, like Durham before, largely based upon an appreciation of its visual qualities…
The plan seems to have been effectively ignored, neither gaining approval nor rejection, or that, at least, was what Sharp subsequently asserted (Sharp, 1956).
Though we are thankful that Sharps Inner Ring Road was ultimately rejected he perhaps, like Holford in Cambridge, made the wrong call in seeking to deliberately throttle the scale of the city (right to a degree but throttled too much) not building a secondary city centre to take the pressure off the city core and not planning for an outer ring road, after all the key views were already protected either from low lying undevelopable water meadows or more long distance views from hills which were not threatened. One compares for example many of our historic cities with the late 19C and early 20C planned urban expansions by the pioneers of German Planning, which in some cities, such as the partially completed Sitte and Wagner plans for Vienna, are considered more important than the medieval cores. Of course continental cities had lots of land for expansion because of the demolition of star fort walls and fortresses. British cities defences were much smaller, because of the lack of threat of invasion, and as a result the image grew up of town and cities being set within and melding with the countryside which constrained it with an ‘Arcadian’ setting, cities being idealized as big villages. Whereas on the continent it was very much the city which expanded as a city.