Oxford is a beautiful city, of that there is no doubt, but put together its historic street layout, listed buildings, and the colleges who own most of it, and it’s a pretty toxic mixture for retailers. Just like York and similar cities its streets are clogged with tourists and cars, and the City Council has tried to ease the blockage with a combination of sky high parking charges and a park and ride scheme which find no favour with local traders.
Any way you look at it Oxford has never been great for shopping. City centre traders can’t seem to figure out who they serve. Is it residents, tourists and day trippers, or the vast transient population of students from its two universities? The main shopping thoroughfare, Queen Street, and nearby pedestrian areas are a mish-mash of high street chains that don’t seem to serve anybody’s needs very well, but there are interesting enclaves, and at one end of the shopping area is Oxford’s famous Covered Market. It’s both tourist hotspot for those in search of ‘authentic’ Oxford, and historic pervayor of fresh foods to residents and colleges alike. At the other end is the ‘never-quite-successful’ Westgate Centre which has no visible anchor and is an odd mix of middling retail offers. Plans for its redevelopment have been bogged down for approaching two decades, and it’s a bit of a sickly child.
So the city is an uneasy mixture of the old and the newish, and I suspect that most residents of greater Oxford source their everyday needs from satellite centres like, Cowley, Rose Hill, Summertown, Headington, and Botley Road, and only venture into the centre if they really must. Now, however it is faced with so many retail redevelopments its mind boggling, and a text book example of how lack of planning, laissez faire development , and competing interests can go awry, with the residents and traders of Oxford potentially the ultimate losers.
At one end of town the cash strapped City Council is trying to impose rent increases reported to be as high as 70% on the Covered Market traders. Many, faced with falling footfall exacerbated by lack of short stay parking, say this is the final straw and that the market will soon be lost to the ubiquity of the multiples who can afford the rents. Meanwhile at the other end of the town, plans to redevelop the Westgate Centre, and double its size to seventy units at the cost of £400 million, are back on track again.
So far so good! Nobody denies Westgate needs serious attention, but those of a suspicious frame of mind might see this as a classic ‘Daniel and Goliath’ scenario. But now throw in the plans, which have just been given the go ahead, to revamp Seacourt Retail Park, about two miles west of the city centre, at a cost of £15 million to create a reported extra 5,000 sq. metres of retail space in ten new units; but with the loss of a local amenity – the only petrol station on that side of the city. And finally, factor in plans by Doric Properties to tear down Elms Parade – a row of popular local, 1930’s vintage, shops – in favour of a multi-screen cinema, chain restaurant, and large supermarket. A development, it should be acknowledged, that is not 1000 metres from the Seacourt Retail Park, and which will reportedly involve the demolition of a church and valued sheltered accommodation for forty elderly residents!
It’s a classic dilemma! In the city centre a beacon of independent retail and bastion of the foodie culture is being squeezed to death, meanwhile on the outskirts unnecessary, unwanted and unproductive retail space is being allowed at the expense of local amenities. I’m not against retail development, far from it, but can’t developers and planners see that the writing is on the wall for such developments? Haven’t they noticed the revolution in ecommerce that means we need far less shops than we did during the consumer bubble? Haven’t they cottoned on to the fact that major multiples don’t need 400 units to achieve national coverage anymore and can get the same results with a fraction of the space and a great transactional website? Hasn’t their dinner table chat revealed to them that a diminishing number of their friends and colleagues set off for the office every day, but work from home or car?
A decade or more of rampant consumerism disguised some shoddy retail offerings undeserving of loyal support. Plus a bloated property market has fuelled speculative shop building to the point where we simply have too many. Shops in the wrong places, the wrong size, built as a sop to planners, or built for ego sake. Shops that nobody wants, needs, supports, or values. So why do property companies and pension funds plough on with their pointless and ill fated retail schemes regardless of the evidence that is all around them? Why are they locked into a mind-set that discounts the new reality?
We’ve been woefully over shopped for more than a decade, and the superstore mentality has leeched the life blood out of too many wonderful towns whilst at the same time our growing population is crying out for homes that are close to amenities, work opportunities and travel hubs. It’s not as though either Seacourt or Botley can be justified as being incubators for new retail talent or offering a leg up to emerging businesses in dire economic times. They’re only outcome will be to further subdivide a diminishing retail cake. Why not keep the 1930’s shops and the petrol station and the local amenities, but tear down the empty shops and offices and replace them with homes?
Aren’t better shops rather than more shops the answer for Oxford and many other cities?