Oxford-Cambridge Arc confusion: Has the project really been ‘flushed down the toilet’?
With conference reporting by Hannah Brown, Local Democracy Reporter
Even the partners working on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc plans are confused about it, an online conference heard today.
Representatives of groups involved in the plan called for clarity for the government over the development of the project at the Westminster Social Policy Forum event.
The government initially put forward the plans to develop the region between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge and to support innovation and economic growth.
Work had been taking place to create a ‘spatial-framework’ that would set out the long-term strategic plans to co-ordinate the infrastructure, environment and new developments across the Arc.
A consultation on this framework was held last year.
But the Arc did not appear in a recent White Paper from the government, and MPs have suggested that it is no longer a priority, with the the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities focused on investing in the north - leaving local partners to pick up the pieces.
One of the partners in the Arc’s development, Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs and Pinsent Masons, said his understanding was that the spatial framework would no longer be going ahead.
Cambridge city councillor Lewis Herbert (Lab, Coleridge) said: “I am a passionate believer in the Arc. I also believe without the regional spatial framework we are not going anywhere.
“I think MPs along the Arc can help us. We do need clarity from the government.
“It is not good enough in a modern society to have indications given by way of rumour that the Arc is no longer going ahead, or that the spatial framework is dead.
“The project is just too important to flush down the toilet, I do think we should continue to champion it.
“I do think if the Arc is dropped that our residents will be the ones to lose out.”
Cllr Herbert also said East West Rail could be at risk, but said he hoped the different partners in the Arc discussions would continue to work together.
In February, the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith (Lib Dem, Gamlingay) told a full council meeting that the MP for North East Bedfordshire, Richard Fuller, had implied plans for the Arc had been “flushed away”.
Bev Hindle, the executive director of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Leadership Group, said he believed there had been a “change in focus” from the government, moving away from it being ‘top down’, to being driven more locally.
Mr Hindle added that there have been “positive conversations” with officers in government, but that the level of support there would be is “unclear” as there has not been public commitment.
In March, the Radical Capital report, co-authored by property consultancy Bidwells and policy advisory firm Blackstock Consulting, suggested that abandoning the Arc would cost the economy £50bn by 2030.
But public opposition to the Arc - and the suggestion that it would lead to one million new homes built there - has been strong, with the Stop the Arc campaign group calling on the government to drop the plans.
Alongside infrastructure development, another proposed aim of the Arc has been to ‘double nature’ in the region, growing the eight per cent of land designated to nature in the region to 16 per cent.
Cllr Smith and South Cambridgeshire District Council chief executive Liz Watts have been involved in a paper on the subject.
Minutes of an Oxford to Cambridge Arc Leadership Group Plenary meeting from last October, obtained this week by the Stop the Arc group, show their initials by the suggestion: “If we can stop using words like ‘growth’ and ‘sustainable’ and start talking about things like ‘doubling nature’ and the ‘green arc’ we might start getting over this huge hurdle of public acceptance of the Arc.”
The minutes also show the leadership group mulling over some of the responses to the consultation on the spatial framework, noting: “There are great concerns that the general public including councillors think that the Arc project is an artificial construct, people do not know what it is and there is concern the current consultation document does not mention the environment principles. There is also concern about the lack of democratic input to the structures who may be governing this. The ‘million houses’ keep cropping up.”
In February, writing for the Cambridge Independent, South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne said: “The OxCam Arc is a prime example. I have given a very clear message to the government that the Arc can’t be about concreting over swathes of the countryside with new homes.
“To be acceptable, it needs to bring clear quality of life benefits to our communities and businesses, as opposed to the bland and meaningless ‘pillars’ that currently hold it up.
“The government has listened. I am glad the OxCam Arc appears nowhere in the levelling up White Paper, and is no longer a government priority. Those community groups who fear the consequences of the OxCam Arc on their villages can breathe a little easier.”
Those still engaged in the Arc are now seeking clarity on where the project goes from here.