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Oxford's new homes builder
Regeneration is not a word you come across too readily in many town halls these days. With councils across England having to take the axe to services and jobs, the tendency is for large-scale shopping, business park and housing developments to be quietly dropped, as grants and sources of private sector investment dry up.
But there sitting across the table from me is Oxford City Council’s newly appointed executive director of regeneration, David Edwards, who is filling my notebook with lists of multi-million-pound projects.
It’s as if the ‘Age of Austerity’ was something that only existed on the other side of Oxford’s ring road.
For it soon becomes apparent that Mr Edwards is a man who has been taken on to oversee an era of unprecedented expansion in the city of dreaming spires.
And we are not talking pipe dreams and wish lists, as the new man sets out various programmes to tackle Oxford’s chronic housing shortage — some about to go to councillors, some the subject of on-going negotiation, some already under way.
We begin with West Barton, the scheme to create a new community of up to 1,200 homes on a 36-acre site on the north side of the A40.
Next up is the Westgate, with news that the city council has struck a financial deal with Oxford Crown Estate and Land Securities to secure the redevelopment of the ageing shopping centre.
As reported in The Oxford Times last week, the package will go to the city executive board next month with a view to seeing the start of work in two years.
Later this month, council officers will be meeting British Railways Board to discuss the option of developing the huge Oxpens site, to create between 400 and 500 homes in the city centre.
Then there is the Northern Gateway scheme to create a business park near Pear Tree, to provide 3,000 jobs and 200 homes.
But here, the city will have to content itself with “encouraging” developers and landowners to come forward with plans.
The new man’s “things to do list” is to build council houses — lots of them.
“Initially, we are looking at 110 homes. If we can do more, we will look at the opportunities,” said Mr Edwards.
He comes to Oxford from the Homes and Communities Agency, where he was director for the South-East.
He previously spent three years working in the Department for Communities and Local Government, then under the stewardship of John Prescott, where he combined the roles of head of regeneration, land and property and chief estates officer.
But he can also claim to have spent half his career in the private sector, having been a director of Arup, the design, planning and engineering consultants, famous for its millennium bridges and its Olympic projects in Beijing.
Initially, he agreed to work at Oxford Town Hall for a year, but the challenge of regenerating one of the world’s most iconic and historic cities simply proved irresistible.
For a man who believes people should be able to live in homes they can afford, in places they want to live, Oxford is not exactly without its challenges.
Mr Edwards explained: “The council said they wanted me to do more work here, with the city having a set of projects that they are keen to have delivered.”
Delivery is what Mr Edwards prides himself on — and he sees the flagship West Barton scheme as the way he believes the city council can take the lead in working in partnership with the private sector to create the new homes that the city so desperately needs.
“It took a lot of hard work to make it happen, to create this opportunity,” he said.
The city owned the land but forming a joint venture company with Grosvenor Developments Ltd, he believes, has been the key.
“That was a significant result in the current market. I don’t think we could have got a better partner.”
Rather than simply selling the site and declaring “job done”, the partnership approach means the council will be able to deliver a high-quality scheme, he argues.
“We did not want to take the money and walk away. We have said we want to keep our investment in the scheme. We have 40 per cent social housing in the Barton scheme with the opportunity to raise it to 50 per cent.
“We now have councils like Bristol coming to see how we have done it.”
Oxford may have a huge housing shortage, but it should not be just about the numbers of new homes, he tells me — it’s also about the quality and design work put into them.
His regeneration brief is not limited to housing.
The transformation of the Old Fire Station, in George Street, into a £3.5m Crisis Skylight education and training centre for the city’s homeless, he sees as an example of the council using a property asset to bring about an innovative project.
“It’s a project doing many things. It has brought more life into George Street, addresses homelessness issues, while supporting the arts scene in the city.
“It’s not that the council has a lot of money. The city has seen a massive reduction in our grant, which we have had to manage. The property market is on the floor. Other local authorities have similar assets but not the same ambition.”
Mr Edwards continues to harbour ambitions to see homes eventually built south of Grenoble Road. The Government’s decision to axe the South East Plan — the regional blueprint for development until 2026 which had been so long and costly in the making — damaged the prospect of 4,000 homes being built south of Greater Leys because it handed the decision back to South Oxfordshire District Council, which opposes the idea.
“Oxford recognises that it has a very significant housing problem,” said Mr Edwards. “We have a major site off Grenoble Road, which is on the wrong side of the boundary. It has the potential to be another Barton. It offers a tremendous opportunity. We will not give up.”
But it will be a case of trying to influence SODC. “We can’t hold a gun to SODC. It must be about partnership and recognising shared issues.”
For Mr Edwards the whole county benefits from the jobs and prosperity that Oxford provides, meaning that housing and development needs to be looked at across a wider area.
Faced with the Government’s commitment to “localism” and the end of the regionalism so beloved by John Prescott, his former boss, it could take some time before Oxford gets to see a ‘second Barton’.
But Mr Edwards will hardly be short of schemes in the meantime.