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OxCam Arc left ‘political scars’ - but council leaders say new pan-regional partnership will help solve problems

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc failed, according to council leaders, but they have welcomed the creation of a new ‘pan-regional partnership’.

Led by public and private sector groups in the Oxford to Cambridge corridor area, the organisation is now taking a ‘bottom-up approach’ rather than being government led.

Cllr Bridget Smith. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Bridget Smith. Picture: Keith Heppell

Political leaders looked to distance themselves from the ‘Arc’ at a conference, highlighting the redesigned approach and a new priority of supporting business innovation, but through environmentally sustainable and inclusive growth.

The OxCam Arc was initially announced by the government to support innovation and economic growth in the region stretching from Oxford, through Milton Keynes to Cambridge.

Ambitions for one million new homes, a new major ‘expressway’ road, and the East West Rail project were all linked to the scheme. The road and the homes figure were later dropped and for a while the scheme was believed by some to have been “flushed away”.

However, the government has now handed over the reins to regional leaders and groups, who say this change of approach has moved the plans from the “winter and into the spring”.

At a Westminster Social Policy Forum conference on the next steps for the Oxford to Cambridge region on March 17, Peter Horrocks, chair of the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership, and board member in the new partnership, said there was a new “dual ambition” for the partnership to support business innovation, but achieve this in an environmentally stable way, and with inclusive growth.

There are big problems we cannot solve ourselves

This new focus on the environment was stressed by Cllr Bridget Smith, the Liberal Democrat leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, and the shadow board member for the environment in the partnership.

Cllr Smith said she “carries the political scars from what was the Arc”, and said the Arc had “failed” as it did not show people living within its area what it would offer them.

She said: “It seemed to be about carbon heavy infrastructure and housing, so it was no surprise people saw that as a threat. This move to a bottom-up approach is good.

“As council leaders we all know we have our own problems. We were just hearing about the water problems affecting our area. There are big problems we cannot solve ourselves.

“Entering a pan-regional partnership will help addressing those problems that can be solved strategically regionally, that we have no power or ability to solve alone.

“There was a comment that the last 10 years have been wasted. I have been involved for the last five years, and they have been really productive.

“What we have are really good relationships across the Oxford to Cambridge area. They transcend politics and transcend sectors.

“Everybody - universities, business sectors - all recognise the value of working together and are all excited about the opportunities of the new pan-regional partnership.

“We know our areas best and we know our problems best, and as I said before we cannot solve them alone.”

Dan Thorp of Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dan Thorp of Cambridge Ahead. Picture: Keith Heppell

Dan Thorp, policy director at the business and academic member group Cambridge Ahead, said it should be a “real priority” for the growth to be more sustainable and inclusive for the people living in the area.

He said many parts of the region do not feel they are benefitting from what is going on, and said there were “tangible things” that could be done, such as finding ways to support people to access new jobs in the area.

Cllr Anna Smith, the Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, stressed the importance of ensuring the benefits of growth were felt by people in the region.

She said: “I am really pleased that this is a new pan-regional partnership, I am careful using that term and not the ‘Arc’, as that is something which had very different aims.

“I am personally pleased we lost the top-down approach and focus on housing targets. This new partnership is and should be about inclusive sustainable economic development that works for all those who live, work and employ people in our region.

“We really face significant pressures. Yes, there is great wealth and great opportunities, but there is so much to address to ensure that everyone shares in the successes of this region.

Cllr Anna Smith. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Anna Smith. Picture: Keith Heppell

“In my own city, Cambridge, is an area where there is significant deprivation side-by-side with companies and world-leading universities.

“Only if we collaborate can we address so many of those challenges because our workers, companies and transport infrastructure does not fit one district council.”

Cllr Smith highlighted the need to improve transport infrastructure to allow people across the region to travel and access the educational and work opportunities.

She said the benefits must be felt by areas on the geographical edges of the partnership corridor, highlighting Fenland.

Cllr Smith said: “If we work together we have much more choice in addressing the challenges we face, much more choice of opportunities we have to support residents and support businesses, and demonstrate our region is really open for business.”

The conference heard that the new partnership still faced problems the ‘Arc’ had, including with getting public support.

Dr Dave Valler, professor of spatial planning at Oxford Brookes University, said there were questions over whether the partnership could establish a “clear economic rationale for the area” and whether the Oxford to Cambridge corridor “makes sense economically”.

He said there were also questions over the “reality” of central government’s continued backing and how much financial support there would be.

Dr Valler said there remained “strong opposition” across the areas within the partnership corridor, and said the partnership needed to work on building support.

Former South Cambridgeshire MP Lord Andrew Lansley, who chaired the conference and is also part of the Cambridgeshire Development Forum, said it would “not be easy” for the partnership, but said it “might be starting in the right place this time, rather than the wrong place”.

Combined Authority agrees to join partnership

Dr Nik Johnson, mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Nik Johnson, mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has agreed to join the rehashed Oxford to Cambridge Pan-Regional Partnership to help it “achieve growth”, a report has said.

Labour mayor Dr Nik Johnson will represent the authority on the redesigned organisation, which replaces the Oxford-Cambridge Arc body to “champion” the region and “achieve environmentally sustainable and inclusive growth”.

A report to the Combined Authority’s board meeting meeting on March 22 said: “The Combined Authority’s corporate strategy focuses on four strategic priority areas: achieving good growth; increasing connectivity; ambitious skills and employment opportunities; and enabling resilient communities.

“It also recognises that strong partnership working and delivery as a key component in enabling this strategy to be successfully delivered.

“Membership of the pan-regional partnership will support the Combined Authority in its delivery of the corporate strategy through stronger collaboration, more efficient working and further strengthening joint working and influence with central government”.

The board confirmed its intention to join.

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