Staff and graduate housing update

Dear Colleagues,

In the course of the University-wide consultation on the Strategic Plan last year, one of the most frequently raised issues was the scarcity and unaffordability of housing for our staff and students.

My colleagues and I have been working hard to address this by developing arrangements to deliver subsidised accommodation for University staff as well as additional graduate accommodation without compromising the University’s finances.

Our proposals are coming together and, subject to further discussion in University Committees, we hope to be able to make announcements in the coming weeks. 

In anticipation of this, David Prout, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources) sets out the highlights below. David will also be making presentations to staff on 11 and 12 June. 

Places can be reserved via the following links: 

  • Tuesday 11 June, 12:30 – 13:30, Academic Corridor, John Radcliffe Hospital  
  • Wednesday 12 June, 13:00 – 14:00, Maths Institute, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter.

With best regards,
Louise Richardson 

Staff and Graduate Housing Update  
Dr David Prout, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources)

One of the biggest issues facing staff and graduate students at Oxford is the ready availability of affordable accommodation, particularly when they first arrive in the City. Our global competitors have worked hard to help tackle this issue in their local areas and now is the time to do something about it in Oxford.

This came through loud and clear last year when we consulted students, staff, departments and colleges on the priorities for the new University Strategy. Staff said they couldn’t afford to live in the City. Students said more affordable accommodation was needed. Departments said they had difficulty recruiting and retaining staff. Colleges said they couldn’t achieve the aspirations of the academic university without more help with the provision of graduate accommodation. And colleagues drew attention to Cambridge University which aims to provide over 3,000 affordable homes for its staff over the coming years.

That is why the University Strategy prioritised the provision of at least 1,000 subsidised homes for University and college staff and at least another 1,000 units of affordable graduate accommodation. Over the last year, overseen by University Committees, we have been thinking about how we can use University assets – principally our rock solid covenant and land holdings – to deliver against these priorities. The challenge we have set ourselves is to do this within acceptable parameters and without significant calls on the £750m Bond we took out in 2017, which has been allocated to strategic, transformational or exceptional academic projects such as rebuilding Tinbergen, providing a new home for the Department of Anthropology, completing the development of the Radcliffe Observatory Site and purchasing more land for future expansion at the Churchill.

The first task has been to identify our land holdings that might be suitable for development. At the most strategic level, this process started several years ago with the review of housing land by Cherwell District Council. Last year the District Council proposed to allocate land owned by the University at Begbroke and north Oxford for housing development. Together with various colleges who also own land in the area we have worked with the District Council to achieve this allocation and are currently waiting for the government inspector to issue his report, which is expected in the autumn.

Within the City’s administrative boundaries we have worked with the City Council to identify appropriate land to build new accommodation. These sites include the canal side at Osney Mead, the redevelopment of graduate accommodation on Wellington Square and the construction of new homes at Court Place Gardens, where graduates currently occupy pre-fabricated post-war homes.

The second task has been to find an appropriate private sector partner to help us deliver the new accommodation. This is a well-trodden path for universities, local authorities and housing associations. The basic principle is that the accommodation delivers an income stream in the form of rents paid by residents, and that this can be used to borrow funding over a long period of time to cover build and maintenance costs.

Based on learning from others we decided to be more demanding than some of our peers. Our proposal was to enter agreements whereby our land was made available on long leases in exchange for high quality new accommodation with affordable rents (which would also remain affordable over the period of the lease). We also said that the funding put in to the agreements could not be traded on the open market (to avoid undesirable investors purchasing our leases). And that the accommodation had to be maintained by the University in order to ensure high standards and provide a University ‘front door’ for our staff and students. We also wanted a partner who was a good ‘cultural’ fit with the University and able to take a long term view of their investments and our partnership.

Over the last year we have spent many hundreds of hours talking to potential private sector partners. After a demanding selection process, Council agreed in March that it was sensible to enter the final stages of discussion with a single potential partner who met our requirements. Those discussions have been making good progress and subject to our own governance and that of our potential partner, we hope to be able to put a proposal to Council for agreement before the summer. At the heart of the proposed agreement is that the University will retain the freehold of the vast majority of our land, that our potential partner will take the build and financing risk and that the University Council retains the ultimate decision making power as to whether or not a particular development should go ahead.

In addition to residential accommodation we hope our partnership will be able to help us deliver academic, spin-out and commercial space at Begbroke Science Park and Osney Mead. And if the partnership goes well, it may be able to help the University with the renewal of academic accommodation dating from the 1950s-1970s. That, however, is for another day.

The Gazette has advertised briefing sessions on 11 and 12 June for staff (a recording of a meeting will be available on the Staff Gateway), and we are still collecting views from our various governance committees. But if all goes well, there will be a public announcement of this new partnership over the summer. I would be very pleased to receive comments on what is set out in this article. You can reserve a place at the staff briefings via the following links:

  • Tuesday 11 June, 12:30 – 13:30, Academic Corridor, John Radcliffe Hospital  
  • Wednesday 12 June, 13:00 – 14:00, Maths Institute, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter.

David Prout
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Planning and Resources)