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

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc will be transformed into “one of the world’s premier growth corridors and a world leader in sustainability” the government pledged as it unveiled its plan for the five-county region.

An Arc Growth Body will be created, it announced, to provide a single voice for the area and drive forward economic growth.

Affordability of housing is a key issue for the Arc
Affordability of housing is a key issue for the Arc

And a spatial framework plan will be created, with results by 2022, to help double the Arc’s economic output by 2050 to more than £200billion.

But critics fear the bold words are really an excuse to turn the region into a developer’s playground, with a million new homes and major roads urbanising a huge area of Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire.

CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough warned the concept could “irreparably damage our countryside”.

Consultation on the framework will begin in summer 2021, the government said, as it promised to work “collaboratively” with local partners.

Unveiling the new strategy, housing minister Christopher Pincher said: “The Oxford-Cambridge Arc is already home to world-leading economic, cultural and scientific assets.

“We know for instance Cambridge’s rate of patent applications – a key indicator of innovation – is the highest in the United Kingdom, while nearby Milton Keynes is the fastest growing city in the country.

“We want to take this region to the next phase of its renaissance by unlocking its full potential and our plans will drive investment where it is needed and ensure, as growth happens, we create well-designed, inclusive and vibrant places and communities.

“The OxCam spatial framework will allow us to plan positively for growth and we look forward to working with our local partners over the coming months to strengthen our vision and approach to the Arc.”

The government said the spatial framework plan would “give communities a chance to shape the long-term future of their area and will help to ensure the benefits of growth are felt across the region”.

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

While the new Arc Growth Body considers how to “unleash the area’s potential as a global innovation powerhouse by promoting the Arc internationally”, the government will also consider how further investment will “create jobs, support the delivery of more homes, and support local economic growth”.

The Arc has already witnessed 17 per cent population growth since 2000 - the fastest anywhere outside London

But the government’s policy paper, published today (February 18), notes that house-building rates have not kept pace, leading to well-known issues of housing affordability.

This is particularly acute, of course, in Cambridge where, as the paper notes, the average home is now 12.76 times the average salary. In Oxford, the ratio is 11.45 and in the Chilterns (17.62) and South Buckinghamshire (15.56) it is even worse - and more than double the England average of 7.83.

While the policy paper does not pre-judge the number of new homes that the framework will suggest, it does suggest that between 476,500 and 1.1 million additional jobs could be created by 2050.

These will power an increase in economic output hat various studies have placed at between £80.4billion and £163billion per annum.

Referencing the need for “levelling up”, the paper points to the region’s inequality - noting that Cambridge and Oxford are among the most unequal cities in the UK, and that the benefits of economic growth seen in Greater Cambridge have yet to reach rural Fenland.

But there is, crucially, acknowledgement of the need for environmental protection within the plan.

“There is a risk that the development that comes with growth will harm the natural environment and the ecosystem services it provides to us, rather than restore nature,” the paper notes.

“We will seek to support an integrated approach to water management, cleaner air, sustainable land management, nature recovery, climate change mitigation and adaptation, in line with the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, net zero commitments and Clean Growth Strategy. We will do this by taking a natural capital approach to inform planning and decision-making,” says the policy paper.

On the key issue of water supply, it says the framework will “support an integrated water management approach, taking into account sustainable water abstraction and drought resilience, water quality, reducing risk and resilience to flooding and how and where new infrastructure should be developed”.

Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Bridget Smith, the Liberal Democrat leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, has been heading the environment working group for the OxCam Arc for the past two years.

She said: “There has been a huge amount of work by a lot of people, including many leading environmental charities, to create a really ambitious set of environmental principles for the OxCam Arc.

“It is very gratifying that our determination has led to the environment having equal top billing along with the economy in the government’s vision for the Arc.

“There is an opportunity not to be missed to turn the Arc into an internationally significant exemplar for low carbon living and working which benefits peoples' health, wellbeing and their pocket.

“At South Cambridgeshire District Council we have just adopted a fantastic Doubling Nature strategy, and I am delighted that others across the Arc and government have followed suit it in recognising the importance of protecting and enhancing natural assets, and creating new natural environments.”

Key to protecting the environment and people’s wellbeing will be tackling the need for more sustainable transport.

The paper notes the region is lagging behind here: “Environmental outcomes are poor, and the risks of further harm are high, with regional level transport emissions responsible for 46.8 per cent of total carbon dioxide emissions in the area, compared with 36.6 per cent nationally. This is driven in part by car‑dependence, with 67 per cent of the workplace population travelling by car, compared to 60 per cent nationally.”

The lack of east-west connectivity will, of course, be eased significantly by the creation of the £5billion East West Rail line, due to open by 2030.

The East West Rail line is due to be completed by 2030.
The East West Rail line is due to be completed by 2030.

But the paper suggests efforts to drive down car use need to go further.

“More needs to be done to promote sustainable transport, raise first and last mile connectivity around transport hubs, and better connect communities, employers, employees, businesses, cultural attractions, nature and universities, including through public transport, cycling and walking – making these the first choice for journeys,” it says.

The government argues these problems cannot be solved by working in silos. Across the Arc there are 23 local planning authorities, a mayoral combined authority, eight transport planning authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and England’s Economic Heartland sub-national transport body.

Its spatial framework will ultimately have national planning policy status, which will help guide Local Plans, and national transport policy status, which will inform local transport authorities.

Critics may fear this could enable heavily opposed developments - such as the 25,000-home community proposed for South Cambridgeshire by West Sussex-based developer Thakeham - to get a firmer foothold in the planning process.

CPRE Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the countryside charity, suggested the Arc project would take “decision-making away from our locally elected representatives”.

“It will allow the government to pursue a top-down imposition of growth, paying no heed to the rural nature of much of the area or the particular needs of local communities,” warned chairman Alan James.

“The Arc is an imaginary concept designed to create artificial competition between regions, rather than directing appropriate development to where it is needed. This would irreparably damage our countryside and disregard the Prime Minister’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.”

But the government says it wishes to work with communities, not against them. Following the initial consultation this summer, options for framework will be put forward for further consultation in spring 2022.

A draft spatial framework for consultation will be developed in autumn 2022, with implementation shortly afterwards.

A coalition of Smart Growth UK and the No Expressway Group - which wants paused plans for an OxCam Expressway permanently ditched - was sceptical of the entire project.

It warned: “The Arc project threatens to dump a million new houses, much other development and major roads across five overwhelmingly rural counties. It’s falsely promoted as a British ‘Silicon Valley’ between Cambridge and Oxford. In reality it’s nothing of the sort.

“Far from being a narrow corridor between the two cities, it would urbanise a huge area of five counties, home to much of England’s best farmland. Here, central government, working with the development industry and sympathetic council leaders in the Arc Leaders’ Group, wants to build a million new houses by 2050.

“That’s far more than required to meet local need. A substantial proportion would be for long-distance commuters. It’s equivalent to building nine new cities, each the size of Milton Keynes.

“Opening up such rural areas to building would mean increasing road capacity and road building, threatening the country’s zero-carbon ambitions. The damage to nature, wildlife and green space would be incalculable.

“All the plans for the Ox-Cam Arc have been developed behind closed doors, out of sight of the communities and 3.7 million people who live there. There is a huge democratic deficit in all Arc work to date - overseas investors have been told more than the populations under threat.”

Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council. Picture: Keith Heppell

But Cllr Lewis Herbert, Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, was more upbeat, seeing an opportunity more than a threat.

“Cambridge is a key city and partner in the Arc and the city council supports an Arc-wide strategy and plan, including a big say for our residents and businesses in future decisions,” he said.

“The initial strategy document was never going to tell the whole story, but it is comprehensive on the core challenges and opportunities and recognises the critical role of the four Arc city regions and its towns, and the need to address the climate change and biodiversity emergencies.

“We are very glad to see the creation of more affordable housing given clear priority along with levelling up across the Arc.

“Economic opportunities including extending growth benefits into our disadvantaged communities in Cambridge, Government is considering further transport investment in addition to East West Rail including in last five-mile alternatives to excess cars and polluting engines. And levelling up into disadvantaged parts of Cambridgeshire matters to us too.

“Our city and communities and neighbours have much to gain in the future from working closely together with councils and partners along the Arc, working with a government that is making the Arc a national priority.”

James Palmer, the Conservative mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, said he was in favour of creating an Arc Growth Body.

Mayor James Palmer. Picture: Keith Heppell
Mayor James Palmer. Picture: Keith Heppell

“I have long made the case for the need to open up economic opportunities across wider areas with enhanced public transport and investment. With clean, fast and sustainable public transport such as the Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro, people can travel easily between major employment hubs including Cambridge and Oxford, creating a stronger workforce which allows businesses to expand, as well as generating new possibilities for affordable housing and helping to reduce the negative environmental impacts that come with over reliance on cars.

“Government has identified the Arc as a key area for high-tech, green economic growth and investment, and I am proud that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is at the forefront of this project. We have already seen, through the East West Rail, A14 and A428 projects, that the government knows the importance of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough economy and the certainty of return on any investment in our infrastructure.

“The Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro is just one example of the innovative, transformative and green projects the Arc can help promote; projects with a genuinely national economic significance alongside the infrastructure benefits that we know are necessary to fully realise economic growth across the Arc.”

Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer, a Liberal Democrat councillor in South Cambridgeshire, who will stand against Mr Palmer in May’s mayoral elections, said: “There are some very encouraging points made in the introductory document, but I also have a number of grave concerns relating to the impact on the democratic accountability of the planning process.

“I really welcome the high ambitions on the environment of the Arc that the government has set out and that Cllr Bridget Smith of South Cambs has been instrumental in shaping. There is the potential to greatly improve the accessibility of nature and tackle the collapse in biodiversity. A regional strategy like this will be able to address major issues that councils alone can’t deal with, such as water scarcity and very high housing and environmental standards.

“It is vital that an informed debate with the public is at the heart of the development of this plan. The outline of a process for public consultation is set out, but this must be followed up with genuine engagement that reaches all parts of our communities.

Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer is the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for the May 2021 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral election
Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer is the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for the May 2021 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoral election

“I am very worried that the residents of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough will end up losing some of the control that we have over what happens in our area. The spatial framework will become national policy and therefore very powerful. I want to see transparent ways for communities and for their local elected representatives to influence the OxCam strategy, both in its creation and in its implementation.

“I am particularly wary of the new designation termed ‘Opportunity Areas’. There is a risk that, in effect, government will designate development zones over the heads of local councils. We need to know much more about how this will be applied. I hope that we get that in time for the public consultation in the spring.”

The arc is currently home to 3.7 million people and more than two million jobs. It accounts for 7.1 per cent of England’s economic output, measured by gross value added (GVA).

Cllr Barry Wood, chair of the Arc Leaders Group and leader of Cherwell District Council, said: “We welcome the continuing commitment from government to the Oxford to Cambridge Arc through today’s announcements.

“We look forward to working together with local people and our local partners to deliver an economy that works for all, underpinned by a high-quality natural environment. This will include planning for and enabling development that is truly inclusive and sustainable which delivers real benefits for our communities and environment now and in the future.”

You can read the policy paper here.

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