The developments for the Oxford-Cambridge corridor include substantial new settlements, but at present, the proposals seem fragmented with no-one in overall charge
November’s budget saw some exciting developments for the so-called Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge ‘Arc’. The government wants to promote around five substantial new settlements along a much improved fast road and railway link between the two university cities. This is on the back of the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) report of November 2017 which recommended the Arc as a key place for new high-tech jobs and housing.
We are seeing land coming up for planning promotion and land which has been identified as having potential for promotion along the Arc and are actively involved in discussions to help bring this to fruition
The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, as the road will be called, is mainly an upgrade of existing roads near Cambridge but will involve building a new section towards Oxford. In his Autumn budget, the Chancellor reaffirmed the government’s commitment to commence construction on the ‘missing link’ of the Expressway, namely the section between the M40 and the M1, and the preferred route for this section will be announced in Autumn 2020. East-West Rail will be the opposite: new between Cambridge and Bedford and then largely on existing lines towards Oxford. The Bicester to Bedford section of the line is to be delivered by 2023 and Bedford to Cambridge by 2030, coinciding with the target date for the opening of the Expressway. The NIC is hopeful that the road and rail routes will be broadly aligned so unlocking the greatest potential for new settlements as well as lessening the environmental impact on the corridor of land.
Rail and road links between the cities are in the government’s cross-hairs, but further thought needs to be put into last-mile transport. Whilst the Expressway will provide a huge improvement in driving times between Oxford and Cambridge, this is likely to exacerbate the congestion in the cities themselves as vehicles can access them more quickly. During rush hour in Cambridge it can take an hour to travel 5 miles and the city’s historic areas are difficult for large vehicles to navigate, as is the case in Oxford. Undoubtedly the eventual answer will be to reduce the number of cars permitted into the cities but this will only work when combined with improved public transport. The Greater Cambridge City Deal consulted last year on proposals to improve transport and a consultation is currently underway to improve links from villages on the west of Cambridge into the city. Other proposals include tram or light rail and an underground system, but it remains to be seen whether any of these get off the ground, particularly given concerns over funding. In Oxford, the latest idea is a two-ended bus to run up and down the ancient streets but again, funding is a major concern.
The NIC suggests five areas for new settlements between Oxford and Cambridge, and one of these is ‘a new garden town west of Cambridge’ to provide ‘a satellite for those working in the city’. We are seeing land coming up for planning promotion and land which has been identified as having potential for promotion along the Arc and are actively involved in discussions to help bring this to fruition.
Clearly, new settlements mean more cars and greater demands on public transport. They also result in increased demand for utilities, particularly water and energy and this demand will need to be met in a sustainable manner and existing supplies will require upgrading. A balance must also be struck between creating settlements and ensuring sufficient green and ecological space as well as sufficient land for farming and food production.
If this nationally significant focus for growth is to be realised, it needs leadership, coordination, and appropriate legal powers to unlock the vast potential that this part of the country offers
At present, the proposals seem fragmented with no-one in overall charge. The numerous stakeholders (local planning authorities, strategic transport authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, developers, housebuilders and landowners, to name but a few), all have competing vested interests and, whilst there is considerable willingness on all sides to work together, there will need to be more coordination and leadership from the top down.
The NIC has made recommendations on the question of sub-regional and Arc-wide governance arrangements, including building on the work of the Oxfordshire Growth Board, establishing a growth board in the central section of the Arc and a transition to statutory combined authorities in these areas to match the Mayoral Combined Authority already in place in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Following on from this, the NIC’s intention is that there should be an Arc-wide strategic partnership board by the summer of 2018.
In the meantime, there will be compromises between the aims of the NIC and those of local planning authorities, and in turn between local planning authorities and local interests along the route. Local Plans need to incorporate the infrastructure and intended settlements into their proposals and on a national and local level, politicians need to win the hearts and minds of the local stakeholders.
In addition, there need to be sufficient legal powers to deliver the vision, particularly when it comes to the compulsory acquisition of land. Currently, land can be acquired for different purposes under different legal regimes, but this may not work for the Arc.
If this nationally significant focus for growth is to be realised, it needs leadership, coordination, and appropriate legal powers to unlock the vast potential that this part of the country offers. We hope this comes forward.
Angus Walker is a partner and head of planning and infrastructure at Bircham Dyson Bell’s London office. Katy Klingopulos is a senior associate in the commercial real estate department at the firm’s Cambridge office