Challenges of the modern city

Great interview with Craig Simmons, the Lord Mayor of Oxford.

This year the Perm-Oxford link is 25 years old. What is your assessment? What have we achieved?

Firstly, we very much value our relationship with Perm. It’s all the more important after Brexit for us to maintain links through twinning. We have added some more twin towns to our list because we want to ensure we continue our international collaboration. We have a very international population here in Oxford, and that’s why we think these relationships are very important. Over the years there has been a great deal of engagement with Perm based around cultural links. I think it’s essential to keep those things going. I’m planning to visit three of our twin cities during February and March, and that’s a great opportunity to share information and learn new things. I’m interested to see how they solve the transport problem, which is a key issue for Oxford because of our congested city centre.

You spoke about cultural projects. Nowadays, twin cities’ relationships are based on this type of project. Do you think that is justified? For example, we don’t have economic projects between our cities. Is that the right way forward?

I think it’s quite difficult to have economic links because Perm is much bigger than Oxford. Moreover, economic relationships are not generally run by local government and that’s the difference. We have many local economic projects such as small businesses and we are able to help them with starting up. We also have big employers like BMW, but we can’t work internationally on economic projects. That’s in the hands of national government, so that’s why there are not as many economic links. But for me, cultural projects are more what twin towns are about. Because if we can connect culturally, we can understand each other better, and then we’ll reduce conflicts and become more open to international friendships.

Do you follow all the news from Perm?

No, not all the time and I haven’t ever been to Perm. But I’m going to visit your city in May for Victory Day. It will be challenging for us because the  celebrations are two days after our local elections, so I leave immediately after the vote and travel overnight. It’s challenging timing, but I really want to come. We very much value our relationships with Perm, and I am also very interested in it because of my own history, as my grandfather is Russian. He is from Vitebsk, so my family has a Russian heritage and I have been to Russia several times. I first visited Russia for family reasons about forty-five years ago, but since then I’ve been to Russia for work, and I worked on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but I’ve never been to Perm. I would have liked to travel there by train because of my concern for the environment, but I don’t have enough time for that. It would be an interesting journey. I’m really looking forward to meeting the people of Perm. In many ways, because of my family connections, I feel very comfortable in Russia.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges Oxford faces today?

I think everything to do with the environment – which is quite a broad issue. So that’s everything around traffic, air quality and transport. The number of people who go to work each day is going up and up, so we need to solve the problem of getting them to the city centre. There are other issues such as homelessness, because of the cost of housing in Oxford. People work here and they want to live here, so it puts pressure on us. We have some projects in this area; for example, we want to build some high buildings to accommodate more people in the same space.

Whilst we are on the subject of the environment, are there a lot of people who are conscious of the green economy, global warming and air pollution? In Russia there aren’t many ordinary people who give much thought to these issues. But in Europe, and indeed in England people talk about the environment.

Yes, that’s true. There are many people who are concerned about global environmental issues. There have been several big campaigns against the pollution of the oceans despite us being nowhere near an ocean. There have been many talks on the topic as well as a TV program. For Oxford people it’s probably the second most important issue after housing.

How does Oxford Council engage the public in tackling the city’s problems?

We have a number of ways we engage with people. Firstly, we keep people informed through newspapers, but this is quite a passive engagement. We also organize online talks and consultations on various important topics. Last month, we had a big citizens’ assembly on climate change. There were something like 50 participants. We asked them about what they want the city to do about climate change.

Do you engage with citizens using social media?

We have very active social media channels. I have a Twitter account, and we have a council Facebook page. People can ask questions and we make sure that everyone who writes to us gets an answer.

Do you manage your Twitter account yourself or does the press department do that?

No, I do it myself. Well, the press department has access to my account, so if I say anything wrong they can correct it (laughs – ed.). Yes, I do it myself. And I’m not like Donald Trump, I’m a bit more sensible. (laughs – ed.). As Lord Mayor, I do two or three events a day, so it’s quite busy. I need to inform people about these events and need to keep them more engaged in the sort of things I’m doing. And they can find out a great deal via social media.

I’d like to ask about diversity in Oxford. Many Russians think that the presence of many nationalities creates problems for the city in areas such as crime for example. But when I explain that to people here in Oxford, they don’t really understand it. They say that ethnic diversity is a good thing for the city. What do you think?

It’s a strange question because we consider diversity a strength. If there are a lot of communities and they are communicating with each other, that’s great, but it is a challenge for us. About a quarter of our population wasn’t even born in the UK, and of the new people being born in our city, half of them have one parent who wasn’t born in the UK, which means it’s becoming more and more diverse. As you can see, we have a wide diversity even in the council chamber, which is a reflection of the population. In general, we think diversity is strength.

I’m aware of the issues in Russia because I’ve worked there. And it can be quite shocking for us sometimes. For example, you don’t say “Thank you” to the bus driver. It’s very strange for us but, I do recognise it’s a cultural difference. That’s why we need to talk more and communicate more.

I’d like to talk about transport. What restrictions are there regarding private transport?

We’ve just consulted on more restrictions coming in, but at the moment you will see that our two main streets are restricted at certain times of day, so no private cars can get through. Lorries and vans are only allowed to deliver to shops early in the morning. Even so, we are not happy with that and we would like to have more streets included in the low emission zone. Ultimately, we want the whole city to have cleaner air and fewer private cars and for more people to cycle, walk or use public transport

How do people react to the restrictions?

In general, positively. You have to remember that a lot of people in Oxford cycle. I cycle everywhere. I have the Lord Mayor’s car, but I only use it when I need to go out of the city. I cycle or get the bus, and in fact most people do that. There are very few residents who drive into the city centre, because we have very good public transport. So, the feeling is generally positive. Of course, some people are concerned, but the majority supports us.

I’d like to talk about the political situation in England. How has the difference in opinion regarding Brexit affected Oxford?

The city voted strongly to remain: 72%. The council itself was also very supportive of the European Union and of the campaign to remain, so we haven’t had any tension on that issue. Now we are looking at how we can protect our economy by working with our twin towns and with friends from other parts of the world to try to make sure that our economy continues to move forward.

Did you have problems with the national government as a result of your stance (I mean your support for remaining in the EU)?

No, the government didn’t get upset because of our position. We are allowed to have our own views. We can still get grants from the government and we can apply for extra funding. In fact, we don’t receive much money from national government, so we have to generate our own money. We still apply for grants for different projects and we are very successful in getting these. We are a liberal city in a conservative country, but it doesn’t make any difference, we still do very well in obtaining national grants. 

How do you interact with the local media? Are they financed from the city budget? How does it work in Oxford?

Well, we have a press office here, which has 5 or 6 people – quite big for a city our size. They send out regular press releases to the media and most of the time the media cover the press releases. The press also come to council meetings and these meetings are livestreamed on the internet. Sometimes, politicians write directly to journalists and to express their opinion, and the media can also publish that. We have local radio and newspapers as well as regional newspapers, so if the council writes a press release, it will be covered. We do have to pay if we want to advertise something, for example new planning applications, or if we want to advertise a concert or a fundraising event. But in general, the media want to cover the council’s work because it is about democracy and informing the public.

Is there any competition between cities in England? In Russia we have a list of cities, so first place is Moscow, then St. Petersburg etc.

I don’t think we have a distinct list of cities, but obviously London is in first place, and then places like Manchester and Birmingham, and Edinburgh. But we are a very small city of only 140,000 people. The biggest reason the city is popular is because of its attractions. We have a great international brand, but in terms of our economy and our size, we are very small. People have always rated us as one of the nicest places to live, and in that sense, we are a very popular city.

Can you say a few words about the housing problem? How do you involve private building companies in solving these problems?  

In quite an unusual way. The city council set up its own building company last year. It is 100 percent owned by the council but operates like a private company. This company builds both social and private housing. They sell houses to people and then they can use this money to build social housing. But we also have partnerships with private companies, for example we have a big project at the moment to develop an area near the rail station.

But this means you can influence prices because you can build more and more houses…

No, no. We can’t build quickly enough to bring the prices down. Thousands of jobs are created in Oxford each year, but we can only build five hundred houses a year. It has no effect, and prices are still going up. At the moment, we want to build more houses outside the city, and we are able to do that because we have good public transport.

Do you run special schemes to help people find a place to live?

We have social housing which is owned by the council, and people can rent it at a very low price, and they can live there for as long as they want. We have a list of people who are waiting for housing. Not everyone is eligible, but most people over 55 are eligible and other people who have young children are eligible. We have about eight thousand council houses, and last year, we built three or four hundred houses. But that’s not enough, and we need more.