By: Mike Watson, partner and head of Oxford agency & asset management at Cluttons.
Situated between river corridors and with iconic architecture sprawled throughout the city, Oxford is an incredibly unique urban environment, which also makes it a niche market for place making.
With the recent plans of the overhaul of Oxford’s Clarendon Centre, hoping to bring retail, office space, student accommodation and laboratories – collaboration between public and private sectors is key if we want to redevelop Oxford’s High Street.
Oxford has a variety of character areas, with some buildings dating back to the 11th century, and the total of listed buildings being more than twice the national average. Furthermore, unlike other cities and their universities, the University of Oxford and its colleges own much of the city centre.
Considering the vast portfolio, Oxford however is not immune to the vacant units and empty shop fronts that now fill the UK high street. The strains of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic pressures proving all too much for big name brands forced many multiple retailers to close. Changes in shopping trends have also been accelerated, with brands moving online and reducing the number and sizes of their premises’.
John Timpson, who led a 2018 government review into what the future UK high-street would look like, said that during the pandemic we witnessed 10 years’ worth of change all at once, highlighting the detrimental impact of the drastic decline in occupants in central units.
Challenges posed by the introduction of the Oxford Local Plan 2036, which aims to protect the historic aspects, and a city centre owned in the majority by Oxford Colleges that understandably will put their students’ needs first, the onus is on to put forward retail development with high-quality design that respects the history and either creates or enhances local distinctiveness.
Cluttons understands that with these challenges it limits who might occupy the units, what potential uses they can put them to, and in turn creates a rather niche market. But the niche market is there, and the independents are growing – today, they make up over 60% of Oxford’s retailers.
As such, despite the presence of some longer-term empty retail, the statistics are showing growth in Oxford, with the media tending to overemphasise the decline. The classification system that Cluttons, the council, and its partners, have put in place shows a much more positive story.
With efforts from local authorities like the Oxfordshire project, encouraging pop ups to open in vacant units – Local Authorities, Colleges and other powers working with Cluttons can successfully deliver an innovative placemaking strategy in Oxford. Combining both private and public sectors, to decide the most effective and efficient way to tackle the issue, there has been encouraging progress experienced and seen on Oxford’s high-street, and something that could perhaps more easily be replicated in other towns or city centres worse linked to universities.
Cluttons is a strategic property consultant that offers exceptional depth of property knowledge from a diverse group of experts, with a focus on delivering commercial results for its clients.
Cluttons employs over 240 staff through a network of offices in the UK, providing a wide range of commercial and residential property services, including asset management, valuation, corporate services, telecoms, and consultancy. Cluttons uses its proprietary Portal technology and deep knowledge in sectors such as infrastructure, charities, and education to provide clients with unique insights and innovative solutions to help them maximise returns on their assets.
Clients include international corporates and institutional investors, to private individuals and families.