No one who walks around the historic centre of Oxford can fail to notice something odd and ominous about the city: like chestnut blight or ash dieback spreading through a wood, there are a growing number of shop fronts lying blank and empty, even in the city centre. It was nothing like this when we arrived here 20 years ago, and older inhabitants say it was unheard of in the last century. If it is not an extinction event, at the very least small shops, particularly independent shops, are now very much a threatened species in our city.
This is not peculiar to Oxford, of course. There is a national crisis of the High Street, about which much has been written (1). There are many causes, indeed it's a perfect storm: the rise of internet shopping and home delivery, the spread of supermarkets and malls on the periphery of the city, rising city centre rents and business rates, the increasing difficulty of driving into Oxford and increasing cost of parking, COVID lockdowns, and now the extraordinary inflation of energy prices, and threatened recession. There are places that have it much worse: in the North East, the 'void rate', as it is called, 19%, compared to 'only' 12% in the South East (2).
But what it is remarkable it should be happening here - in the very centre of one of the most prosperous cities in all England. And it has been gathering pace rapidly over the last few years.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with shops changing hands, indeed, it's essential that they should, as part of the natural life cycle of the forest, as it were - old trees fall, new ones arise. And to continue the analogy, the dominant vegetation may change. The big department stores in the city centre were long vulnerable, and had found it hard - eventually, impossible - to find a survival. path Likewise, the closure of old pubs and their replacement by bars and coffee shops, like it or not, reflects changing social habits and preferences (though just how many coffee shops can Oxford support?). But what isn't at all normal, or healthy, is the extraordinarily high number of properties remaining empty in this prosperous city.
A special sadness is the death of so many businesses that were locally owned, quirky, interesting, in a word, Oxford - and some very long-standing: Gills in Wheatsheaf Yard, said to be the oldest shop in England (1530), Boswells, Englands oldest department store (1738, pre-dating that other Boswell), Rowell's (1797) in The Turl, where I got my 30th anniversary ring, Thorntons' Books in The Broad (1830), Aldens and Hedges which vacated the Covered Market for cheaper and easier to reach places further out. To be replaced by more chain stores, more tourist tattery. We begin to look just like any other large town. But we are not like any other large town, we are much more interesting. distinctive, and our shops ought to reflect that.
While as I say there are many factors driving the death of our shops, it's also the case that the fingerprints of both Councils are all over the crime scene. The New Labour-ish City Council has long in bed with - no, let's be fair, genuinely in love with - Big Money - whether public or private, forming joint partnerships with big property companies for massive developments. But, as several shopowners have bitterly remarked to me, it doesn't have the same interest in sustaining small, locally owned businesses. Because they don't fill the Council's coffers, I guess.
Whether in fact these big developments have benefited the people of Oxford, rather than just the developers, is a moot point. The massive development of Westgate has surely been a mistake. It is as bland as every other mall, full of the usual national brands: nothing interesting, nothing that can't be found in dozens of other towns, or on line. It has helped drive up business rates and rents generally, and led many existing shops to move into Westgate, leaving voids behind. Queues for its car park often stretch right down the Abingdon and Botley Roads, and up Hythe Bridge Street, causing gridlock. It surely ought to have been built on the outskirts. Even in its own terms it isn't successful - footfall is below the rates assumed in the project, and there are embarrassing voids within the complex.
Westgate is also a disaster in architectural terms: hugely out of scale with the small historic centre of Oxford, and making a major contribution to what one might call the banalisation of Oxford - for all the ludicrous claims by planners (what do they know?) that each massive new development will be ‘iconic’ and ‘world class’, places like the Westgate or Castle Mill student flats are ugly, characterless, and have nothing of Oxford about them. It is though the Council's long term aim was that the centre of Oxford should be indistinguishable from that of any other Midlands city. If so, they are fast succeeding.
And the City Council are directly responsible for the sad decline in the Covered Market, which they own. 20 years ago it was still a functioning market. Today it is not. Very often, there are more shop assistants visible than customers. Gradually, the real food market shops, Aldens, Hedges, the bakers, Palms have pulled out or died off. Inevitably, since this is not the 1950s and people don't come to market to get their groceries any more. It's become a dismal place. Such markets elsewhere in the UK have found a second lease of life - as up-market foodie heavens, showcases for local produce, street food, eating out, live music, at Borough Market in London or Stockport or Doncaster (3). Oxford Council has let ours wither away for far too long. Now, the Council is at long last renewing the place physically, but still has no idea what to do with the place.
In the same way, the County Council seems careless that their aim of making driving into and parking in Oxford more and more difficult will damage retail trade (and pubs, resaturants and entertainment businesses) - at just the point where we are faced with the worst recession in years. Especially since the Council have defied public opinion (in their bogus 'consultation') to insist on routing all traffic for Westgate, Oxpens and the station along Botley Road, sure to become a permananent jam. Plus the 4 day, no, wait, one month, no three month, no, sorry, it's 12 month, no, maybe seasonal every year, complete block of Botley Road, while a hole is dug under the railway bridge, which several businesses tell me, will be the end of them.
The planners - the same people who, a few years back, were so sure that building a huge shopping mall right in the city centre would be a huge success - have now decided that we are now 'post-retail'. A growing number of what have been prime retail sites are being given over to non-retail use. Jesus College have taken over a piece of Cornmarket and the same is happening with the old DFS and Carpetright malls in Botley Road, and in the Clarendon Centre re-development, and in a site in George Street, while Boswells is to become a hotel. Naturally, this is happening withut any real engagement with the people of Oxford. Just a 'consultation' on the Covered Market - which featured the priceless question, would I be more likely to buy my spuds there if it had better loos. Truly, planning is too important to be left to planners.
So the Oxford of the future will look and feel very different. There may not be many shops other than in Westgate and tourist tat and of course, endless chain restaurants and cafes. Need it have been like this? I don't think so. The Covered Market should have been renewed and revived and properly marketed a decade ago, instead of being taxed into oblivion. Westgate should have been built on the ring road. The city should have nurtured interesting, indpendent shops in the city centre, as in Brighton's Lanes. And we should have had new buildings that were graceful, interesting and which complemented Oxford. And we could have benefited from street design which was graceful and safe, instead of a cacophony of ill-mixed street furniture, over-full with signs that still fail to accommodate pedstrians and cyclists safely.
If you go to Florence or Turin or Rome itself, you can see big cities that have not found it necessary to surrender their urban landscape to Big Money and big buildings, and which have preserved small independent shops It can be done. We chose not to.
Does the dying of small shops matter, though? After all, things always change. But I wonder. Cities have always been built on trade - places where you go to buy and sell things. Napoleon jeered that the English were 'a nation of shopkeepers', not understanding that it was precisely Britain's pre-eiminance in trade that enabled it to take on and destroy the biggest empire in Europe since the Romans.
Now, are we a nation of ex-shopkeepers?
Here follows my photo survey of empty shop fronts in Oxford City centre. It is very far from comprehensive. I did not go north of Little Clarendon Street, east of Magdalen Bridge, south of Christ Church, or west of the station. I've excluded the Clarendon Centre, as it is under development, though it was in real trouble well before that. I also did not include pubs (4).
In this tiny area, barely half a mile square, I found over 60 dead shops. If one were to add Headington and Summertown shops, Cowley Road and Cowley, the numbers would be vastly bigger.
(1) For example, https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/consumer-business/articles/what-next-for-the-high-street.html, from which the chart is taken
(4) But see https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/20012132.pubs-lost-oxford-since-1990s/
By the time I got about halfway through this book, I thought to myself: yes, it's ingenious ( the linking of stages in his own life to stages in modern Ireland's history), it’s very well written and it’s very informative - I knew most of the story in outline, but some things were new to me - the replacement of the old Protestant Ascendancy by a new ruling class after independence, the extent and brazeness openness of their corruption under Haughey, and the wild speculation of the Celtic Tiger years (all of which made me feel that Boris Johnson and Co had something to learn about corruption and speculation, after all). New to me also, the extent of Irish emigration in the late twentieth century.
But, I wasn't enjoying the book at all. For the author seemed not merely to disapprove of much of what the Irish said or did, but actually to despise them. And on his account, that seemed a reasonable response to a society composed equal parts of mediaeval credulousness, obsequiousness to power, sentimental self-delusion and callous indifference to the sufferings of those most in need. It was like a novel where the author has, and generates in you, no interest in the fate of his characters. Why read on?
What I lacked was a narrative - a way of understanding this story, that made it more than just one damned thing after another. And in the last quarter or so the book, everything changes - we get that narrative, we see Ireland change fundamentally, we understand why O’Toole has told the tale in the way that he has. His thesis, which seems compelling, is that the Irish were unable to think clearly about themselves, but took refuge either in evasion and duplicity - what he calls knowing but not knowing – or in grasping at versions of themselves that were however not true, or not wholly true.
The last quarter of the book describes the destruction, largely self destruction as it turns out, of the things that were keeping the Irish from themselves, keeping them in confusion and in fear. Above all the destruction of the Catholic Church, as a result of exposure of its system of torture and slavery of children and women through the Christian Brothers, the Magdalen Laundries, the mother and baby homes, sexual predation by priests and routine cover-up by the heirarchy. And the overthrowing of oppressive Catholic sexual morality - which as he shows was largely in fact exercise in hypocrisy at the expense of the most vulnerable - through the unstoppable intrusion, first of American, then European culture, and finally the inrush of immigrants to Ireland from all over the world in recent decades (another thing I had not known).
And in tandem with that, the weakening of the ruling class and the destruction of Fianna Fail, as their breath-taking corruption and economic mismanagement were so exposed that it could not longer be ‘known but not known’. Growing prosperity, and the ending of Ireland's traditional place as one of the poorest countries in the developed world.
And finally the end of the old militant version of the nationalist dream, as a result of revulsion at the excesses of the IRA, at violence as an end in itself, of the gradual acceptance by the IRA that they could not win militarily, and of the the dawning realisation that hardly anyone in Ireland actually wanted a united Ireland brought about the extirpation and forcible driving out of the Prods, even if that were militarily possible. And that it might be possible, might even be better, to live with some ambiguity about the precise political expression of Irishness.
Thus far, that might sound it was as simple as this: that Ireland had been very backward, and is now thoroughly modern. However he's making a much more subtle, interesting and I think more universally applicable point than that. He is describing a people, a country, which finally manages to see itself clearly, not by replacing one story by another, or by abandoning the past, or by becoming just like their neighbours, but rather by finding a way of living with uncertainty about its identity and about its future, instead of clutching at bogus identities and bogus beliefs.
This is done in the fascinating final chapter where he rather wonderfully quotes Keats’ notebooks, of all things, on something he called ‘negative capability’: “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” instead of being “incapable of remaining with half knowledge” (that’s Keats). Or O’Toole: ‘Ireland did not start as one fixed thing and end up as another…. It did not start out as isolated and become globalised.. it grew but it also allowed itself gradually, painfully and with relief to contract, to shrink away from the stories that were too big to match the scale of its intimate decencies. We ended up, not great, maybe not even especially good but......not so bad ourselves”.
It's a beautiful conclusion. But one which is, for an Englishman, so full of anguish and almost unbearable pain. For we have chosen to go in the exact opposite direction. At the time of the London Olympics ceremony in 2012, it seemed for a moment that we might have passed peak Churchill, to have found a way of understanding our past in all its complexity without being a prisoner of it, and to welcome change and diversity even if we couldn't fully see where it was leading us. We seemed to accept all that … and then we didn't. In the Brexit vote, and subsequently, we decided, by such a tragically small majority, to concrete ourselves ever more firmly back into the past, or rather a highly skewed, essentially false view of the past. And in electing Boris Johnson, we opted for a kind of Fianna Fail ourselves - open, monstrous corruption, careless erosion of liberties and law, economic mismanagement on a devastating scale. Ireland has gone forward: we have gone backwards. And we chose it. We did it to ourselves.
If there is any hope for us in this book, it is that the narrative which the new Tory party is spinning is self contradictory and already falling apart in front of our eyes. Leaving Europe did not make us more free or more prosperous but the reverse. Letting the rich make themselves much richer did not trickle down to the majority. Once uniquely poised between the US and Europe, able to mediate between the two, we are now a figure of ridicule or best pity internationally. Internally, we are more hypocritical, more at violently at odds with ourselves, more confused, more depairing than at anytime I can remember.
All this contains the seeds of its own destruction. Sadly, we lack any politician capable of seeing that , of giving us a sense of hope, on left all right. And I am not wholly confident that will pull through. As I wrote after the Referendum, countries can lose their genius, can slide into terminal decline. But there is some reason for hope: polls show that the ghastly reaction we are living through is concentrated in my generation, and that the young are more radically minded that previous generations of their age. I think the time may come when we turn our back on the myths of English exceptionalism and have the courage to breakthrough, back to the real world, and to our own best instincts. But because we deliberately threw away our best chance, it will be very slow and very painful.
And since my generation needs to die first, I won't be around to see it.
[For people living in Oxford, and West Oxfordshire, this needs no introduction, and likewise, anybody who's ever suffered from the attentions of Network Rail. But for others: in November 2021 Oxford City Council gave the go-ahead Network Rail’s £160m project to modernise and expand Oxford rail station. This necessitated closing Botley road, the main, indeed the only, route into Oxford from the West, cutting the city of Oxford in two, for - Network Rail said then - four days. By spring 2022 this had grown to one month. By August, three months. In September, it became a full year’s total closure. But it rapidly became clear that Network Rail had no idea of the social or political consequences of cutting the city in two, or how to deal with them. About three weeks before the closure was due to start, on 9 January, Network Rail cancelled its plans, saying it would have a re-think. We still have no idea what they're up to. The only constant is that their plans, as announced, never happen – and the work on the main station is also now behind schedule. Now read on….]
“We may never be told why the schedule has slipped so badly”, opines the Oxford Times. No indeed, and much is still concealed from us, but it’s not hard to see what the underlying causes are. As it happens, inquiring into failing projects was part of my job as Finance Director in the Home Office, and I wrote a book partly on that theme. And it’s worth doing: because if you don’t understand why things go wrong, they’ll go wrong again, will they not?
The root cause: this is a highways project being carried out by a railway company - and a very peculiar railway company, at that.
To clarify: there are two separate elements of the work on the bridge. One is essentially railway business - to add extra track, as part of the expansion of the station. This takes surprisingly little time to do: about 9 days, Network Rail now say. A big crane comes along, lifts off the old bridge and plonks down a new one. The second is to widen and deepen the road under the bridge - essentially a highways project, done for highways reasons (poor safety for pedestrians and cyclists, high vehicles cannot pass under). This takes longer (though how much longer is the issue).
Both projects, the railway bit and the highways bit, are being run by Network Rail, a railway company, and it is the railway company which contracted with Keir to do the work, and it is the railway company that provide nearly all the money, which comes from the Department of Transport.
A number of things followed from this. First, railway work is naturally what they focus on, and also what they understand. So: they had an outline project plan for the railway work ready right back in midsummer 2021, because they understood railways and had been thinking about it for years. But all the signs are that they didn’t even begin to think about the road work until Kier were appointed contractor in March 2022, and even then, it appears that they didn’t grasp didn’t fully understand the complexity and difficulty of the road work til about August 2022, 3 months before work was to start. Another sign of how the railway dominated the road works: it is the need to close of the rail line for a week in August, as being most convenient for the railway operators, that determines the sequencing of the road work, yet the prolonged closure of the only road into Oxford from the west seemed not to strike Network Rail as a problem. Money is part of it: closure of the rail lines costs Network Rail (operators pay rent to use the line) - but closing the road apparently costs them nothing . And when the budget proved tight, it’s the road work that took the hit – we were told the reason the road work can’t be done more quickly is money: working overtime and weekends would cost more. Slow is cheap. And yet ironically it is the road work that is creating all the problems, and has now derailed (!) the entire project timetable.
You might think they’d be helped to understand the highways issues by the Highway Authority, the County Council. And they did help. But this was not an effective partnership. For under 19th century railway legislation Network Rail has virtual immunity rom local authority planning control regarding works on its own land - quite unjustified the same does not apply to airports, for example. As a result, we've were told that Network Rail required no legal authority from the County Council to do the work on the road and that legally the Council has no control over what they do. That seems hard to credit, but it's what they say.
In consequence, the County Council seemed astonishingly dissociated from the scheme: they just accepted whatever Network Rail tell them, and whatever they decided. Network Rail made announcements on the road closure themselves, without coordinating with the County Council. And when it became clear that long term closure would have serious social consequences for the whole City, Network Rail found that running the whole show their way embroiled them in issues they were simply unable to understand, let alone address. As late as mid December, it was unclear who would deal with these social problems - the County Council or Network Rail. As for the City Council – whose city this is – Network Rail didn’t even bother to inform them of the changes in plans for the road works (so the City Council informs me).
This is why, in mid-December, weeks away from the planned 12 month closure of Botley Road on 9 January, neither Network Rail nor either Council seemed to have any kind of grip on the re-routing of buses, or continuity of access to healthcare for chronically ill and disabled people in West Oxford, or the cost to local businesses, or the possibility of rebates in business rates, or the safety and feasibility of pushing large crowds of people, cargo and child loaded bikes, disability scooters and pedestrians wit mobility problems through a narrow pedestrian tunnel, or access for emergency vehicles to West Oxford or whether taxis would still serve West Oxford and who would pay the extra or where shuttle buses could turn or stand……Chaos.
I mentioned earlier that Network Rail is a peculiar company. As well as immunity from planning control, Network Rail is also peculiarly unaccountable. It is, in law, a publicly owned company - but not as we know companies, Jim. it does not trade - it has a natural monopoly, so does not need to bother about competition - and it has only one shareholder, the Secretary of State for Transport, so does not need to bother about profit or share price. It is in reality, of course, not a company, but an arm of the State. But even in relation to the Secretary of State, it operates as an ‘arms length’ body. What this means is that Network Rail it is not accountable at all here in Oxfordshire, but also barely accountable at national level. In theory, it is possible for an MP to call the company to account in Parliament, but it is rare for a backbencher to secure time for a debate on a constituency Network Rail issue. And even when they do so, it is apparently the case that Minsters cannot interfere with Network Rail’s decisions (1).
Indeed, on the rare occasions that MPs do get to debate the impact of Network Rail projects on their constituencies, they complain bitterly about the lack of accountability and of democratic control. “…. Network Rail s not an accountable body at all…. When we try to raise constituency cases, or make complaints about works on the line or things that it wants to do, it is very difficult to get any answers from it, because it just does not want to consult. It just wants to do things and pays lip service to community engagement” (Alison Thewliss, MP, Hansard, 10 January 2018). And high level accountability is meaningless in relation to the nitty gritty of local issues: “…. the company’s chief executive, is personally accountable to Parliament for Network Rail’s use of taxpayer’s money, and the Secretary of State for Transport holds some power over the board’s leadership and management of the business, but accountability on issues that can have a significant impact on local communities seems to be totally absent. For it to be so independent that it is wholly unaccountable and free from adequate scrutiny on such matters …..clearly is unacceptable. If Network Rail is able to dismiss the representations of local residents, councils, Members of Parliament and even the Secretary of State, surely it is time to revisit its structures. That should not and cannot be allowed to continue…….The reality is that there is no real accountability on this issue. If the community cannot hold Network Rail to account through their elected representatives, surely it is now time to look again at the existing legislation.” (Martin Vickers, MP, Hansard, 4 June 2019). Even the Minister seemed to agree: “the point raised by Members about accountability was well made. I will take that away from the debate.” (Jones, ibid).(2)
So, on issues like the management and mis-management of this project, Network Rail, though publicly owned, is not answerable to anyone. It is in fat, far less accountable than a real private company would be, since a company like, say, Kier has to worry about reputational damage, loss of profit, share price and future business , and its income from the project would also be at risk from penalty clauses. None of those apply to Network Rail. (3)
All these factors go to determine the organisational culture of Network Rail, which I believe is the crucial factor in all this.. All organisations, pubic or private, have a particular culture and way of behaving. For example: Network Rail is an engineering company, and engineers are primarily focussed on things, not people. Furthermore, it is highly specialised: its business is running the railway infrastructure, and nobody else does this. So there is also a tendency to view themselves as the guardians of railways, and everybody else as bothersome outsiders. This was memorably expressed to the inhabitants of Abby and Cripley roads, when Network Rail first advance this project in 2017 and we expressed concern about noise etc. Network Rail’s response was “the railway was here first”.
The effect of all this - Network Rail’s belief that it and it alone understands railways and others have no business interfering, its effective monopoly of its business, its immunity from planning control, its immunity from the normal consequences of project overrun or overspend and its lack of any effective form of accountability - is an organisational culture which is inward looking, uncommunicative and which does not regard itself as beholden to anybody for anything. It is oddly secretive. For example, they have refused to identify the project manager for this project (although I am quite sure they can be forced to do so). So we may not know the name of anyone managing this project! Contrast that with the Highways Authority, where the key people are publicly known. Another example, the Rewley Rd residents’ association tell me that Network Rail promised a wall to screen off noise when work was done on that side of the station, then just did not do so. Another: when the City Council gave permission for this project to go ahead, the Council specifically asked them to work closely with the residents in developing proposals for mitigation of noise, vibration end dust problems, changes in parking and roadways, and the eventual design of the station. They promised to do so, and then simply did not. They promised to show us options for the noise insulating wall, then never bothered. Dismissed our request for sound insulation out of hand (too costly, at 1/200th of one percent of budget!). And this not just a local aberration: if you look at the Hansard debates staged by MPs , the same things are said again and again of Network Rail : that it does not do what it has promised, that it makes its own decisions without regard to the wishes of the community, and often, without even informing them.
And yet for all its dismissal of what outsiders say or want, Network Rail is, for a company specialising in railway infrastructure, lamentably bad at railway infrastructure projects. Its history of project overspend and overruns, even on specialised railway work (never mind highways!) is notorious, and well documented in successive reports by the National Audit Office. The electrification of the Great Western route doubled in price in 4 years before Ministers lost patience - no love lost between Dept. Transport and Network Rail - and stopped the project mid-stream, committing to expensively equipping trains with both electric and diesel motors, because Network Rail could not be trusted to complete the electrification project. (That’s why we will still have smelly noisy diesels at Oxford station, seemingly for ever.) Similarly with the electrification of the Midland Main line: costs escalating out of control, delays running into years, Ministers losing patience and curtailing the project. On the Trans Pennine Route upgrade, £190m abortive spend. (For an entertaining, coruscating and very well informed account of the mismanagement of our railways over many years, see my brother Ben Le Vay’s book, ‘What’s really wrong with our railways?’, available on Amazon).(4)
What we – all of us – should have learned from this is this: if Network Rail insists on being left alone to do things their way, they will fail. And while failure in electrifying rail lines is a railways matter, the cutting in two of a great city for a year is not. It is not Network Rails’ private business: it is our, and our councils, business; and Network Rail badly need us, need the Councils, to make it happen satisfactorily.
This is why the group, WestOxfordAccess, together with our councillors has pressed for a joint approach going forward: with genuine, frequent, formal cooperation between the managers responsible at Network Rail, Kier, and both Councils, with real consultation with local residents and businesses (rather than just announcing an endless series of ‘plans’, then soon abandoned). That is txhe effective way of dealing with the impact of such a project. It is also the democratic way.
Will that happen….is another question.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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