Look beyond the varsity cities to the brain belt
Since the Boat Race began in the 1820s, Cambridge crews have won it 82 times against Oxford’s 80. It is not the only arena in which the two universities compete, of course: the Times Higher Education World University Rankings has placed Oxford in pole position for the second year running this year. Its academic rival – like in many other aspects – lies just behind, having jumped from fourth to second place in the rankings.
A similarly close rivalry plays out in the cities’ property markets. Both are blessed with historic architecture, plenty of job opportunities and lie around 60 miles from London. That connectivity has made them attractive options for Londoners wishing to move out of the capital but still live within an urban, cultural environment.
According to research by Hamptons International, nine per cent of those buying homes in Cambridge are from London, whereas 19 per cent of Oxford buyers are from the capital. The knockon effect has been big house values, and fire-powered price rises. Research by Savills shows that Cambridge’s average sale price in 2017 was £520,000 against Oxford’s £507,000 – both well above the UK average and making city centre living increasingly unaffordable for all but the very wealthy.
The only area where property values in the cities are distinctly different is within their most expensive wards: Newnham, Cambridge (£902,000) and North Oxford (£1.502million), which is prized for its large, Edwardian villas within walking distance of some of the city’s most highly regarded schools. Knight Frank has a six-bedroom house in Woodstock Road for £2.65million.
Until recently, Cambridge had been making serious gains on Oxford: prime city house prices have galloped over the past 10 years by 46.8 per cent, against Oxford’s 22 per cent, according to Savills. The reason, believes James Barnett of Savills in Cambridge, dates to the forward-thinking colleges which, back in the Seventies and Eighties, decided to channel their particular talents for the sciences and create innovation centres.
Beyond the quads, the gowns and the tea rooms, today Cambridge is “a major European centre for biotechnology and pharma,” says Barnett. With that growth, the city has become more cosmopolitan and attractive, with an increasingly wide selection of bars and restaurants; the Ivy Cambridge Brasserie opened on March 14.
However, house price growth in Cambridge tailed off during the last three months of 2017, demonstrating that some of the froth has come off the market. “In common with other places, we’ve experienced a levelling off of prices,” says Barnett.
“Buyers have got to a point where they will draw a line. If competition for a house gets too hot, they’ll now back away.” Interest from London buyers has subsided a bit, he adds, “now that they can no longer sell their houses in a heartbeat.”
Nevertheless, Richard Freshwater of Cheffins says that the best properties in the city centre – including areas such as Newnham and De Freville – are continuing to attract an average of offers from between five and eight different bidders and some are selling by sealed bids. Prime Oxford prices have, meanwhile, remained largely static, according to Mark Smith of Strutt & Parker, with prices in line with 2016 levels.
Another area where the cities vastly differ is in their approach to building new homes. Several years ago, Cambridge planners decided to push back some of its greenbelt land, making space for new homes and the expansion of the science and tech hubs. There are currently 68,000 new homes in the pipeline within a 20-mile radius of Cambridge, and particularly around the southern and western fringes of the city.
Oxford’s greenbelt, however, has been described as something of a developmental noose around its neck, and expansion plans are more modest in size. When Savills released apartments for sale at the newly revamped Westgate Centre they were snapped up by eager buyers, says the firm’s Ronnie van der Ploeg. In both cases, funda- mental to these expansion plans are improvements to road and rail. This week, the Government announced a £215million deal to boost housing and infrastructure in Oxford. But despite the opening of Oxford Parkway station in 2015, and discussions to reintroduce the Cowley branch line plus a new station at Oxford Science Park, Cambridge nudges ahead of its rival in this aspect.
Major improvements to various trunk roads around the city are set to finish in 2020; there are plans to introduce rural travel hubs to connect villages in south Cambridgeshire to public transport routes into the centre, and there is talk about building a Cambridge underground.
Such is the demand to live in this area of the country, the Government is looking to open up the route between the two cities. By adding infrastructure to the area, it hopes to support the building of a million new homes by 2050 in the so-called “brain belt”– the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor.
Also known as “CaMKOx” or potentially “Oxbridge”, the National Infrastructure Commission sees it as being something akin to Britain’s answer to Silicon Valley, supporting the hi-tech industries such as biotech, driverless cars and artificial intelligence that already line the corridor and which make it one of the most productive areas of the country.
In days gone by, it was said that you could walk the 67 miles (as the crow flies) between Oxford and Cambridge without leaving college-owned land. Since the closing in 1967 of the so-
A townhouse in St Aldates, Oxford, £2.65m with Savills
The Boat Race; Storeys Cottage in Cambridge, £1.375m with Savills, main