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Oxford – Milton Keynes – Cambridge: A Corridor of Uncertainty for the Countryside

Oxford – Milton Keynes – Cambridge: A Corridor of Uncertainty for the Countryside

In recent years, London and the South East have seen rapid growth, and the Government seems broadly content to allow this trend to continue. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ appears to have fallen by the wayside. But how can encouraging more development in the South East be reconciled with policies to protect the countryside, such as Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty?

Ministers have grasped at the Oxford – Milton Keynes – Cambridge 'Arc' as a solution. The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, used his Autumn Budget to give the Government’s blessing to proposals drawn up by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC): a million new houses in the Arc by 2050, a million new jobs, and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway – in effect a motorway by stealth.

CPRE has already highlighted the devastation that the growth proposals will cause. An area of tranquil countryside, wildlife reserves and ancient woodland the size of Birmingham would be lost to development in order to meet the housing recommendations alone.

The way the Government has already approached the issue is highly worrying for anyone concerned about local democracy, our environment or the lack of housing people can afford to live in.

So far, there has been no formal public consultation on the proposals for a million new houses and other economic development, and Highways England has only engaged with the public in a limited and inconsistent way on the Expressway. The lack of consultation and debate adds up to a major, and troubling, democratic deficit.

Not only has there been a lack of public engagement, but there has been no formal environmental assessment of the impact of development in the Arc either. The Arc is adjacent to the Chilterns, one of the most water-stressed districts of England, and multiple areas of Green Belt. Moreover, a number of towns in the ‘Arc’ already suffer from high levels of air pollution. The new Expressway will damage large areas of landscape and set back local plans to tackle air pollution.

How does this square with Theresa May’s commitment to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it?’

Developing the Arc will involve significant amounts of public money – at least £5.5bn. At a time when much of the Midlands and northern England feel left behind and in need of regeneration, there needs to be a public and parliamentary debate about whether this level of spending can be justified in an area that is already attractive to employers and the housing market.

Why should we subsidise the business-as-usual of big housebuilders – land-hungry, expensive houses – rather than the diverse mix of housing we need to meet the needs of local people? On current trends, only about a fifth of the million new houses will meet local needs for social or other low-cost homes. There has been no meaningful commitment to build a wider mix of new housing that could alleviate the housing affordability crisis.

Due to the worrying lack of scrutiny and risk to our countryside there are a number of principles which must addressed before the government gives any further consideration to these proposals.

Local people must be given the opportunity to express their views on the broad development options and the individual sites that are earmarked for development via a full public consultation. It should also allow for policies to be brought forward to improve the design and affordability of new housing, and the quality of the countryside.

The undeveloped countryside of the Arc is not, as some officials and developers may see it, a blank sheet of paper on which they can put whatever they choose. This countryside is hugely important for both wildlife and cultural history, and contains large tracts of productive farmland. We need more commitment to safeguard this precious heritage for future generations.

Additionally, spending £3.5 billion on the Expressway is an expensive distraction that will also add to pollution and countryside loss, and encourage additional traffic both to and from places outside the Arc. At a time when we desperately need investment in sustainable travel options, it makes no sense to lock in carbon emissions, air pollution and car-dependency for decades to come. Completing East-West Rail should be the priority, not a new road.

The lack of public scrutiny and debate around these proposals, scant consideration of the potential environmental damage and lack of vision for housing is of great concern. Growth at all costs is not an approach the Government should be taking, particularly when the potential impact risks causing such monumental and irreversible damage to our countryside.

The lack of consultation and debate adds up to a major, and troubling, democratic deficit at the heart of these proposals.

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