As Oxford prepares to go to the polls for local elections today, a key battleground seems to be between Labour and the Greens. The Oxford Blue has spoken to several candidates, standing both for Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council, which are distinct entities. Oxford City Council has a Labour majority, while Oxfordshire County Council is controlled by a Conservative coalition.
Michael O’Connor, an Oxford postgraduate, is standing for Labour for the University Parks division in County Council elections. He told us: “I’d describe myself as Green Labour—strong left solutions that are also sustainable and climate friendly”. He further claimed: “The Labour-controlled City Council has some of the most ambitious climate targets in the country, and it’s actually meeting them. The Council will go net zero this year and wants to get the city to zero by 2040, or preferably sooner, which is a decade ahead of government guidelines”.
He further claimed this was why his campaign to be elected to County Council was crucial. He told The Blue: “the County Council is really holding back these efforts” and stated: “That’s why we need a Labour-controlled County Council. As for the Greens—Labour’s doing everything the Greens want to do already when it comes to actually tackling the climate crisis.”
Mr O’Connor also claimed homelessness was a central issue. “The City Council’s committed to a housing first approach to homelessness—getting every rough sleeper permanent accommodation—and its budget for preventing homelessness is at £9.1 million, the highest it’s ever been. About half of those housed in the pandemic are still in permanent accommodation and all of Oxford rough sleepers were offered vaccines very early on. I want the County Council to spend similar amounts and to work with the City to develop a joined-up approach.” He also claimed that on the Conservative-controlled County Council’s budget: “Labour did its best to protect the most vulnerable, successfully fighting against cuts to youth mental health services.”
Mr O’Connor further endorsed the campaigns of other Labour Candidates, specifically Edward Mundy and Imogen Thomas in Holywell and Lizzy Diggins in Carfax for the City and Brad Baines for Isis in the County Council.
The Blue has also spoken to a more seasoned observer of Labour politics, Ed Turner, the long-time Labour councillor for Rose Hill and Iffley on the City Council. Mr Turner said it was a “delight to be on the doorstep again”.
We began by discussing the environment. Mr Turner stated the City Council was positively disposed to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) recently introduced by Oxfordshire County Council. He claimed the climate emergency meant some radical measures would be needed. Mr Turner admitted some unintended consequences and expressed hope councillors could build bridges on this issue.
Oxford Council has also recently brought in a zero-carbon target. He observed he could see solar panels on council houses in Rose Hill installed to help meet this target. Oxford Council had also offered a free home energy survey for council tenants, which, for example, checks insulation. He noted in addition to improving energy efficiency, this also helped people suffering from fuel poverty or trapped on exploitative energy tariffs.
On housing, Mr Turner stated the Labour council was building more housing through its subsidiary company Oxford Housing Limited. He argued it was preferable profit should go to the City Council if private housing is built. Mr Turner said a personally important issue was raising standards in privately rented houses. He noted while this affected student housing, in his ward he also dealt with cases of vulnerable people on low incomes in exploitative relations with landlords. Mr Turner said proactive inspection was needed, as often renters did not know their rights and felt they could not complain. He stated Oxford Council was addressing the issue through licensing shared rented properties. He also noted a renewal and expansion of a scheme to ensure checks on landlords renting properties, as there were otherwise no controls to ensure the landlord was a fit and proper person, for example, someone without previous criminal convictions.
The housing and environmental issues also intersect in this ward, specifically on the Iffley Fields issue. The Iffley Fields are two fields in Iffley village, which local pressure groups fear will become a housing development. Mr Turner stated he supported the inclusion of one field in the local plan and noted housing had to go somewhere. He complained that his political opponents supported developing housing in the abstract, but then opposed specific developments when proposed. Mr Turner specifically accused the Greens of having jumped on a bandwagon on this issue. He claimed under the Local Plan all new housing must create a net biodiversity gain.
The Blue also discussed Labour’s national campaign with Mr Turner (it is worth noting his partner is Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds). Asked about the national Conservative lead and strong Green polling, Mr Turner claimed that the Tories were benefitting from a “vaccine bounce” because of the NHS vaccine program. He claimed it would have been amazing for this to have no political impact. He also stated that recent government scandals had begun to come up on the doorstep. Mr Turner believed the specific alleged comment of “Let the bodies pile high” had cut-through. Mr Turner also noted the strong environmental record of the Labour council and the “Oxford Model” of avoiding frontline cuts. He believed voters appreciated this record which was likely to prevent losses to the Greens.
The Blue also spoke to Mr Turner’s Green opponent, Nuala Young, at a protest by Friends of Iffley Fields in Bonn Square. She stated an important issue for her campaign was building on the Green Belt at a time of biodiversity loss. She expressed concern about climate change, noting she was a member of Extinction Rebellion and expressed the belief something big was necessary to combat the climate emergency.
Ms Young argued the Green Party took a strong stance on affordable housing. Ms Young complained that in the local plan 400 acres had been set aside for offices, yet remote working has reduced the need for offices and there are derelict shops in the city centre. She noted the local plan was originally drawn up in 2018 and argued it had not changed to reflect the effects of the pandemic or the climate emergency declared by the City Council.
Ms Young explained that the Greens particularly felt the west end of Oxford should see affordable housing development. She accused the Labour Council of reneging on a previous pledge to include affordable housing with the Westgate. By comparison with Iffley Fields, affordable housing in the west end would create a good area with access to nature.
On student issues, Ms Young noted student safety was important. She stated she would like to see further support for young women in getting home safely at night.
The Blue further spoke to Craig Simmons, the Green leader on Oxford City Council. Mr Simmons expressed concern on the specific issue of Iffley Fields. He said the area was a habitat for protected species like badgers and otters and claimed he had observed a large badger set when he visited the site. He suggested when the site reaches the planning stage, he believes the presence of protected species will preclude development anyway.
Mr Simmons related this to the broader issue of building on the Green Belt. He linked the pressure on housing to commercial development. He pointed to the Oxford North development as an example. Oxford North is a sizeable, mainly commercial development on land owned by St John’s College. Mr Simmons alleged that Oxford Council allowed St John’s to provide only 35% affordable housing rather than the target 50% despite a weak case for an exemption. He further cited the Westgate, where he alleged council housing was demolished and the development included only luxury flats. Mr Simmons claimed the Greens campaign for affordable housing, but the Labour Council regularly breaks its pledges. He also argued a general problem existed of an incorrect balance in land-use between housing and commercial use, which placed more pressure on housing and the environment.
Asked about student-related issues, Mr Simmons discussed live performance venues, claiming the local plan was weak. He complained this was terrible for the culture of a city which had produced bands like Radiohead. He further noted Green campaigning on the Wheatsheaf. Mr Simmons also stated the Greens were campaigning for an Oxford Living Rent, which would help student renters.
On the Green campaign, Mr Simmons noted the Greens were getting good feedback. He found on the doorstep many labour voters were disillusioned by what he described as “the lurch to the right” in the Labour party nationally. He also stated he was getting good reports from the Greens’ national campaign, including from Oxfordshire, London, and Brighton.
Contacted for further comment in response, Ed Turner told The Blue claims about the Labour council reneging on affordable housing pledges were “outrageous”. He claimed the council had “probably the most demanding affordable housing requirements in the country”. He stated that those displaced by the Westgate had homes “reprovided” and that financial contributions allowed an increase in affordable housing overall. He also denied that Oxford Council had accepted a “weak case” from St John’s. He claimed: “The level of contributions was set after very extensive expert analysis commissioned by the Council”.
It seems there is much for students to consider as they prepare for polling day. Elections for both County Council and City Council elections will be held on Thursday the 6th of May. A full list of City Council candidates is available here and County candidates here. The Labour manifesto is linked here and the Green Manifesto here.
Image Credits: Iona Shen, based on image from Unsplash