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Anthony Browne MP: ‘OxCam Arc must not be an excuse for more houses and urbanisation’

South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP Anthony Browne writes for the Cambridge Independent.

Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell

How many descriptions can you use for where you live? The name of your village? Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, or South Cambridgeshire? You can go wider – the region, the East of England, or even just the country itself.

This month, the newly created Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is finishing its first consultation on adding another descriptor – the OxCam Arc. Only we are all still trying to work out what that is.

In geographical terms, the arc is huge. Covering five counties represented by nearly 30 overlapping local authorities between Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, it supports over two million jobs and adds over £110billion to the economy every year.

The government sees this as an economic heartland and is seeking to protect the heritage and environment across the area by delivering the right development and supporting the right infrastructure at the right times. They want to do this by delivering a framework – essentially, a plan for how the area will develop.

The problem is, they have yet to define what that means in real terms. Is it about building as many houses as possible, or simply allowing better connectivity between existing settlements? Are we looking to have companies to move into our area, promote the ones we have, or incentivising workers to help grow new and old enterprise alike? Is this designed to work alongside existing plans by our local councils? What say will residents get? There are still more questions than answers.

The government has given no clear indication of that strategy beyond four policy ‘pillars’: the environment, the economy, connectivity and infrastructure, and place-making. No-one can disagree with a focus on any of these areas, but there is nothing radical or visionary to be found here. Enhancing these pillars should be the responsibility of any local authority. How exactly will an arc framework add value for our residents?

A map of the OxCam Arc. Image: MHCLG
A map of the OxCam Arc. Image: MHCLG

The answer cannot simply be that it is all about housing. Not only do we not have the infrastructure to support more housing, but we also do not have enough of the most fundamental natural resource - water - to support such growth. It will take decades to address the water shortage issues. As I have said to the local Liberal Democrat councillors, who are seeking to concrete over our countryside, their planned 49,000 new homes would be the very embodiment of irresponsible and unsustainable planning. We must find innovative to manage growth without destroying South Cambridgeshire in the process.

I take enormous pride in representing one of the fastest growing economies in England, but I also applauded our Prime Minister’s announcement as part of last week’s conference speech that we need “beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense,” “not on green fields” and “not just jammed in the South East.” The arc cannot seek to jam homes across our countryside that South Cambridgeshire can no longer support.

What does South Cambridgeshire need? Not yet more new housing, but a better quality of life for our current and future residents.

My starting point remains transport. Our current links are not suitable for the kind of growth we could experience – and certainly not for the vast, unsustainable housebuilding bonanza planned by South Cambridgeshire’s Lib Dem overlords. The arc at least allows the chance for the government to take on long-term projects with tangible benefits to the residents of South Cambs.

The OxCam Arc. Picture: Google Earth Pro
The OxCam Arc. Picture: Google Earth Pro

Girton interchange is a perfect example of a historical transport problem that simply needs a little national impetus to solve. MPs, the county council, parish councils, campaigners, and residents have been calling for improvements for decades, only to run out of road quite literally. If the arc is to be successful, projects like this must be considered. I am therefore already discussing such proposals with ministers.

But this is not nearly enough. Any approach should also take environmental benefits into account from the start - rather than an afterthought, as they seem to be for our local planners.

It should have a ‘nature first’ approach, putting a premium on natural recovery, improving air quality, improving access to nature and green space, rewilding, nature-friendly development, and biodiversity net gain. I have been holding meetings with representatives from the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), National Trust, Wildlife Trust and Natural Cambridgeshire to ensure we are asking the right questions of the arc in this vital area.

If it is to proceed, the OxCam Arc must be a truly visionary project – not just another excuse to build houses and urbanise our rural area.

Read more

Cambridge ‘will be destroyed by supersizing plans’, says University of Oxford professor

Rethink OxCam Arc or you’ll damage nature and climate, say RSPB, Wildlife Trust, CPRE and Woodland Trust

Seeking a vision for Oxford-Cambridge Arc spatial framework

Oxford-Cambridge Arc: Government pledges to create ‘premier growth corridor’ while protecting environment

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