Mapping and development of garage sites in Oxford for community led affordable housing (Oxford City Council)

Piloting an engagement-led approach to identifying brownfield sites for new homes.

At a glance

Housing Advisers Programme case study

2020/21 case study 

What went in

Priority area addressed: meeting the affordable housing need within the city of Oxford, where land is scarce and house prices are beyond the reach of many residents 

Budget: £19,944 

Other resources needed: the budget covered the expertise from Transition by Design in mapping the sites within an area of Oxford; conducting site visits; and desk top feasibility work which culminated in block designs for a number of sites. Oxford Community Land Trust brought their expertise in community engagement with local residents and extensive local knowledge 

Time taken to achieve outcomes: The project took 11 months to complete. 

What came out


  • Comprehensive mapping of garage sites in Oxford. This included over 20 garage and small backland sites in Blackbird Leys, which were all in Oxford City Council ownership 
  • Design development of three shortlisted sites that were identified as potential for delivering between 12–19 homes 
  • Community engagement to ensure local residents and councillors were kept abreast of the project aims and outcomes. This ensured that they were able to provide valuable insight into key issues in the local area including identifying a previously unknown site to the team 
  • A clear methodology for the identification; mapping; assessment; design development; and delivery that is possible on unused brownfield sites, which has a potential to provide 250+ homes. 

Difference made / indication of success:  

  • Sites identified for future affordable housing development. This included the identification of potential sites that are not currently used, but with further feasibility work can support affordable housing.  


  • The three shortlisted sites have potential to provide between 12-19 new homes. 

"Our community needs more housing, and less building on green land, especially land that is used by kids, etc. I love the idea that has been used in Bristol! Very few people use garages nowadays and many sit unused so why not use that space."

Stuart Parsons, Oxford Blackbirds Boys & Girls Football Club (local football club with around 370 players and a network of 2000 local families).

Executive summary

Oxford City is one of the most unaffordable areas in the country outside of London with the average house price around 12.4 times the average income. This makes home ownership an unachievable dream for many residents. Land is scarce, with high prices and limited development opportunities. The purpose of the project was to identify small parcels of land owned by the council and assess their capacity for providing affordable housing.  

In partnership with local architects, Transition by Design, and Oxford Community Land Trust, the project mapped over 580 garages in the Blackbird Leys area where occupation rates are low, and cases of anti-social behaviour are high. Eight sites were identified for further analysis and a public engagement workshop was attended by over 30 people. It explored the type of development residents would be interested in. Following the consultation, initial block design proposals were produced for three sites to test the scale of the development possible. 

This mapping and engagement exercise helped Oxford City to re-assess underused or redundant sites for affordable housing. We have over 1,000 garages across the city still to be mapped and it is hoped that other councils will be encouraged to follow our lead.

Challenge and context

House prices in Oxford City are amongst the highest in the country and the council has over 2,800 families on our housing waiting list. Availability of land to build on is a challenge with sites within the City boundary being scarce and those available are high in value. The challenge for the council and our partners was to develop a system to identify and evaluate unused or underused sites and assess their potential for providing housing. Sites ranged from garage blocks to disused play areas; drying areas; and unused amenity space.

An initial desk top analysis identified 1,932 garages across 147 sites in Oxford City with potential to provide up to 250 housing units. The actual number can only be determined by further individual site feasibilities and this number may be conservative.

What we did

Various sources of information were provided as the starting point for pulling together a comprehensive list of sites and a criteria for shortlisting each site was drawn up to create a mechanism for evaluation. The criteria included: 

  • ownership 

  • vacancy rate 

  • size and shape 

  • access 

  • orientation constraints 

  • opportunities 

  • location in relation to other public realm offerings 

  • interest / support from the local community. 

The sites were then mapped by area in the city. This enabled the team to see sites with geographic adjacencies which might benefit from coming forward as a single project. From the initial site list, garages in Blackbird Leys were identified as having the best potential for development as they have the highest concentration of garages and the lowest occupancy rate (over 50% vacancies) compared to other areas in the City. 

Blackbird Leys is an urban extension that begun in the 1950s to the east of the City and is currently home to over 13,000 residents. It is undergoing a large regeneration project and is seeing considerable investment and change in an area of high deprivation and social housing tenancy. The project considered how the redevelopment or regeneration of the garage sites could complement this work and present an alternative and parallel approach to contributing to the housing need in the City. 

The team undertook a tour of 20 sites in Blackbird Leys to record the site size, typology (infill, straight row, backland etc.), and any access points, formal and informal, that existed at each location. This helped to produce an estimate of the number of units each site might be able to accommodate and also resulted in a number of sites being classified as undevelopable for housing due to site constraints. From the initial 20 sites, eight were shortlisted for further investigation. 

These eight sites were then looked at in more detail. Desk top utility searches were undertaken, and further site surveys conducted to identify any above or below ground infrastructure that may inhibit or reduce the development area. Work also began on the public engagement exercise, with Oxfordshire Community Land Trust and Transition by Design attending a Parish Council meeting to inform councillors and key stakeholders of the project and to seek their support. From this engagement another site was raised by the community and included to the shortlist – a car park and a former garage site that is a common fly tipping area and a source of anti-social behaviour.

Poster advertising the community engagement event
An image of a poster advertising the community engagement event
Leaflet advertising the community engagement event
an image of a leaflet advertising the community engagement event

A community engagement event was planned with over 1,000 households being leaflet dropped. Others were reached through social media and local newspapers, and posters were displayed across Blackbird Leys to advertise the event.


On the day refreshments were provided by a local catering group, Damascus Rose Kitchen with over 30 residents taking part in interactive design workshops and discussions around possible uses for the garage sites. The possibility of different tenure types coming forward because of the involvement of Oxfordshire Community Land Trust was also raised by a number of those attending the community engagement event. An interest was expressed in finding out more about the benefits of Community Land Trusts as a route to more affordable housing.

Participants at the community engagement event
a picture of participants at the community engagement event
Mapping exercise at the community engagement event
a picture of a mapping exercise at the community engagement event


Residents who attended the event expressed that they felt listened too and were able to share their experiences with the team to actively pursue underused land for alternative uses including housing.

Following the community engagement event, the shortlist was reviewed and further refined to three sites to allow the team to concentrate their efforts and remaining resources to maximum effect. More detailed site analysis and outline block design proposals were produced for the three sites which together are estimated to be able to provide 12-15 much needed housing units. These block designs will provide the starting point for the next phase of the project which will be to carry out a full feasibility study for each, if sufficient funds can be secured.

The project report at the bottom of the page provides full details of each stage of the project and the video “Can empty garage sites in Blackbird Leys make affordable homes?” capturing the public engagement event can be viewed on Youtube.  

The difference we made

The focus of the project was to look at all of the underused and backland sites owned by Oxford City. The objective was to create a systematic approach to mapping garage sites and vacant land and to demonstrate their capacity to provide land for much needed affordable housing.

From several site lists the project team has successfully mapped all the small sites in Oxford and evaluated over 580 garages in Blackbird Leys producing a shortlist of sites that has the potential to provide 12-19 affordable homes. It has focused on three sites and developed block design drawings to demonstrate the development opportunity that may exist on each. It has created a methodology and template for evaluating sites and a process for meaningful community engagement to capture the views of residents. Partnership working with Oxfordshire Community Land Trust and Transition by Design allowed each organisation to bring their specific skill set and knowledge to the project. 

In the next phase it is hoped to apply this process and methodology across the other garage and unused sites in Oxford City.

What’s next?

Overall, these small sites have the potential to provide 250+ affordable homes to meet the core aims of the council of increased affordable housing supply, meeting carbon reduction targets on new homes, increasing sustainability, investing in regeneration and working with communities to improve their city.

The next stage is to look for funding to carry out further design development and feasibility work on the three shortlisted sites. This will also include working with Transition by Design on the detailed design and Oxfordshire Community Land Trust on further community engagement and a potential ownership and management model for the housing units.

The intention is to also use this methodology framework for looking at the remaining sites owned by the City to get a clear indication of the number of housing units that can be provided. The need for affordable housing remains a key strategic objective for the council and by utilising these small sites we can make a contribution to meeting the housing need in the City. It is also hoped that it can be shared and replicated by other local authorities through the Housing Advisers Programme shared learning.

Lessons learned

The site information was held in a number of different formats by a variety of sources and, therefore, comprehensive collation and recording at the start has been key. This was not known when the project scope was first drawn up, so we were ambitious in our initial goal setting and underestimated the amount of time collating the site data, site visits, desk top analysis and site selection would take. This impacted on the number of sites we were then able to shortlist and develop more detailed designs for. However, by concentrating our focus on fewer sites we have been able to demonstrate the potential that exists for development on these small parcels of unused land.

Carrying out the public engagement exercise as an interactive event was extremely beneficial and allowed residents to engage with the design team and actively participate in the design process. A film recording of this has enabled us to showcase the event and share more widely the engagement undertaken with residents. We would recommend using design charettes for future design engagement with local residents. 

The project demonstrated the potential that exists for the provision of affordable housing on small undervalued parcels of land and by following a clear methodology we can regenerate these areas for the benefit of the community and the wider City.


Deborah Wyatt, Senior Affordable Housing Supply Programme Officer 

Further information