Reducing inequality in Oxford: enter Covid-19
by Caroline Hartnell
Almost a year ago, on 1 March 2019, I met with a group of people from Oxford – city council officials, an elected councillor and staff of social enterprise Aspire Oxford – to talk about their vision for the city. There was much talk of social enterprises, cooperatives, community wealth building, paying the living wage – creating an inclusive economy. The emphasis in Oxford is not on revitalising a failing place but on reducing inequality – Oxford is the second most unequal city in the UK (Cambridge is the most unequal).
A year later, I talked to Paul Roberts, CEO of Aspire Oxford, about what progress had been made in realising an inclusive economy and reducing inequality in Oxford. At the end of April I spoke to Matthew Peachey, the city council’s economic development manager, and Councillor Richard Howlett. I asked them what progress had been made with creating an inclusive economy, and how the Covid crisis is changing things.
When we spoke last year we were in early days of launching the Oxford living wage, said Matthew Peachy. Now, he says, they have something like 30 sign-ups from businesses/organisations of all sizes and types. Most recently, ‘a real winner’, is the University of Oxford adopting it in February. This is the administrative core of the university, not including the colleges, but it’s still ‘a big deal’. Currently over a third of the colleges are living wage employers, and becoming Oxford living wage employers is now being discussed at the Conference of Colleges.
Progress towards an inclusive economy
Since last year the council has hosted four inclusive economy seminars, the last in November. The aim was to bring together county-wide stakeholders, anchor organisations, businesses, social enterprises, the academic sector – all who care about the issue of inequality – and to diagnose the depth and breadth of the issue in Oxfordshire. They also planned to look at what other places are doing, and to understand how to leverage the strengths and weaknesses of a place, and how the business and education sectors can work together more closely. ‘We tried to turn all that into an “ambition”, the definition of an inclusive economy,’ says Peachey, ‘with a set of metrics to measure ourselves against, and some strategic priorities for this “coalition of the willing” to get behind and work towards.’ They had the final report almost ready, and were looking at setting up an inclusive economy commission, when the Covid-19 crisis happened.
For four or five weeks, the economic development team turned all resources to supporting businesses, ensuring any businesses affected knew how to access the support available, and lobbying government where there were gaps. The aim was to make sure as many businesses as possible survive and as few jobs as possible are lost. Now the focus has shifted, he says, and they are drawing up an economic recovery plan, to be discussed on 1 May, and an economic strategy. ‘The aim here is to try and react to the new environment and to make sure we’re still aware of inclusive economy and sustainability drivers as a city council.’ This is embedded at the centre of corporate planning documents, he says. ‘But we’re recognising more than ever that, with jobs and businesses being lost, inequality could get worse.’ To avoid this when rebuilding, the council will need to look at retraining, move towards more purchasing locally, and work with partners to ensure they’re creating economic opportunities locally. Peachey talks of reimagining, or reorienting, the local economy.
The importance of community ownership
Richard Howlett is the council’s champion for co-ops, and he’s particularly interested in community wealth building. ‘I’ve been impressed by how well co-ops have adapted to the crisis,’ he says. ‘It shows that the ownership of a business matters. For a co-op, serving its members and being concerned for the community are in its bones, so decisions made in a crisis like this are likely to put the welfare of staff, communities and customers first.’ He compares the very good systems put in place to protect people by the community shop/cafe where he works with what has been happening in some privately owned businesses, often owned by extremely wealthy corporations.
‘We want the cooperative economy in the city to grow,’ he says. ‘And there will be opportunities for this.’ He gives the example of pubs closing down. ‘We’ve got a good history of pubs coming into community ownership. I’m keen to have a city sufficiently well networked, and people sufficiently aware of the co-op model, that when businesses that provide a valuable community hub are in danger of disappearing, people think of the cooperative model as potentially useful.’
While the current situation might be exacerbating inequality, it sounds like the Oxford strategy of creating an inclusive economy, with different ownership of enterprises, is proving to be a good way to address this.
The council’s seven economy recovery projects include the expected things like getting people back to work, businesses restarted, and the city centre open, but they’ve also added a neighbourhood regeneration scheme. ‘There’s an opportunity in neighbourhoods now for things to become more local, even hyperlocal,’ says Peachey. To support this, the council might look at things like offering enterprise space in its community centres, and working much more closely with the communities team on very local enterprise regeneration. ‘There will hopefully be a chance to look more closely at new opportunities to work more with organisations and people within communities to develop shared aspirations and successes. We need to bring economic and social initiatives together more effectively.’
One opportunity is presented by the property market – and here Peachey is thinking particularly of commercial property. There has never been enough property available in Oxford, prices are high, and ownership isn’t widely spread. ‘This locks people out of opportunity.’ Now it seems possible that more buildings will be empty (though it’s by no means guaranteed: ‘we may end up with 20-30 per cent of vacancies in the city centre or we may be relatively immune to changes, it’s hard to know at this stage’). In these circumstances the council might be able to unlock access to use of assets – temporary or ‘meanwhile’ use – by a wider range of people while changes are occurring. ‘
Howlett recalls a pre-Covid debate within the council: should we try to get the biggest bang for the buck in renting out properties we own to finance our services, or should we be using properties as assets along community wealth-building lines and giving social enterprises opportunities to do creative things. ‘Changes in demand for certain property may shift that debate,’ he says.
A green recovery?
Is it likely that recovery will enable the local economy to move in a greener direction? Again, Peachey sees ‘risks and opportunities’. He mentions Milan – a larger city than Oxford, but similarly compact – which is making more space in the city for cyclists and walkers on a permanent basis. ‘People aren’t going to want to go on buses or trams for a while, so the choice might be to go by car or use more active modes like walking and cycling. We’re asking how we might be able to prioritise street space for cycles and pedestrians rather than going back to cars.’
Howlett mentions that there has been a great increase in local deliveries. Pedal and Post, a local bike courier company, have been doing food deliveries by bike, with the food often provided by co-ops – ‘a response to both the climate and the Covid crises’. Peachey agrees there’s been a lot happening locally around food. A recent event run by Good Food Oxford brought together social enterprises, co-ops and charities that are food producers or retailers or wholesalers working together to innovate. The city council is now looking at whether they need to support sustainable production and delivery or whether it’s happening anyway. ‘One problem is that if you’ve got more deliveries, you’ve got more vans on the road.’ One solution could be to use park and ride car parks as ‘consolidation centres’ so bikes could take delivery from there. ‘Travel could go in a more sustainable direction, but it could go the other way with people using the car more.’ ‘We should make as much of these opportunities as we can,’ Howlett concludes.
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