Taking a wide view: the Oxford-Cambridge Arc consultation

Avatar for Andrew Wood
By Andrew Wood
5th August 2021

With the consultation live for ‘Creating a Vision for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’ national CPRE’s spatial planning lead Andrew Wood, explains his perspective on the developing project and the challenges it presents.

What is the Arc?

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc runs through the five ceremonial counties (non-administrative regions, also informally known as geographic counties) of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. As a concept, it stems from a report by the National Infrastructure Commission in 2017, Partnering for Prosperity, which majored on ‘east-west infrastructure enabling new settlements’ and included proposals for 1 million new homes, East-West Rail, and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway road scheme.

'One word that was conspicuously absent from Partnering for Prosperity was 'climate'.'

Since then, the Expressway has been scrapped and the 1 million homes ambition appears to be fading – in July 2021 the housing minister refused to support it stating it ‘wasn’t government policy’. That leaves East-West Rail, which is a good idea in principle although has caused controversy over the choice of route through Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire.

But if the Arc is to be more than a railway and a development-boosting brand, what should it be?

City of Oxford
City of Oxford | Pixabay

Seeing green, not red

One word that was conspicuously absent from Partnering for Prosperity was ‘climate’. In February this year, government published a scoping paper for an Arc spatial framework (a non-statutory document that outlines the vision and priorities for growth and the overall spatial strategy for the area), which struck a very different tone. Perhaps the most telling statement in that whole paper is this:

‘The Arc is …constrained by inadequate infrastructure, a stressed and fragmented natural environment, escalating housing costs, and complex local governance. It is at risk of worsening outcomes for the environment if we do not overcome constraints and meet future demands in the right way.’

Or, to paraphrase, the pressures of development and economic growth that are happening without strategic planning pose a serious threat to quality of life and to nature’s carrying capacity. That being the case, we should now expect a meaningful investment programme for nature and social wellbeing, shouldn’t we?

'It’s unclear how the process will be made transparent and accountable, and not side-step the democratic scrutiny that comes through the local plans process.'

On the level

Given the Arc’s roots as a growth promotion project – what urban planners call ‘boosterism’ – it’s tempting to be dismissive of the spatial framework. After all, if the government is serious about its ‘levelling up’ agenda then surely it should be investing in places where opportunity and quality of life are seriously lagging behind, rather than giving a further leg-up to areas that are already surging ahead?

CPRE is a longstanding advocate of strategic spatial planning, and having a team of civil servants working across departmental disciplines offers real scope for joined-up thinking – and that could be a good thing.

However, the Arc departs from the model of strategic planning that has been emerging for several years in Greater London, Greater Manchester and elsewhere, it doesn’t fit any existing administrative geography, and it’s unclear how the process will be made transparent and accountable, and not side-step the democratic scrutiny that comes through the local plans process.

So, it’s not really the version of strategic planning we had in mind. Nevertheless, we must seize the opportunity for influence, and this is the best stage of the process for us to set out our own priorities.

CPRE wants to protect and enhance countryside and landscape, and for people’s needs to be met fairly and sustainably in a healthy, zero-carbon future. What does that look like for the five counties in the Arc – and their cities, towns, villages and landscapes?

punts on the river Cam in Cambridge
The River Cam in Cambridge | Pixabay

A clearer vision

The Vision appears to agree with us on the big challenges: the environment is at risk, the climate emergency looms large, travel patterns are unsustainable, homes are too expensive. What can the spatial framework really do about it? Here are my suggestions for four big ‘asks’:

1. To have any prospect of meeting the net-zero 2050 carbon target, every single new economic enterprise which starts up or grows over this period needs to be a net reducer of emissions, and growth of existing businesses must also come with a carbon mission.

2. The pressure on the area’s water environment must be a top priority that underpins all investment programmes. Natural systems and infrastructure are already operating beyond their limits. Pressure on chalk streams, a world-class ecological asset, is a particular worry, and in the north-east of the Arc, the Cambridgeshire Fens are a fragile mix of wet, lowland habitats and the most productive farmland in the country. The spatial framework must set policies that can genuinely restore nature at every turn, not just trade it off against economic development.

3. The transport priority should be making existing and new neighbourhoods walkable and more accessible by public transport – the 15-minute neighbourhood is a great model for this. Too many economic growth projects are still wedded to the 20th century model: build a road and allocate development land along it. There is no place for such outmoded thinking in a strategic plan for 2050.

4. The housing priority should be to build genuinely affordable housing. Housing costs are a huge problem: if young families and key workers can’t afford homes, places don’t function properly. But this affordability crisis will not be solved by building open market housing, because it does not reduce prices.

Speak up for smart growth

It’s important, then, to set out our ambitions for how wonderful life might be in urban Northampton and rural Bedfordshire by 2050. The Smart Growth Coalition, a coalition of people and groups who support the Smart Growth philosophy of spatial, transport and community development, of which CPRE is a member, offers a good place to start. If the spatial framework can help, so much the better.

Rural views in Bedfordshire
Rural views in Bedfordshire | Ally Davies/CPRE

The biggest risk is that, in reality, the spatial framework can’t properly address these challenges. On housing, Shelter have calculated that around one third of all new homes in the UK need to be in affordable tenures. On transport, the government has decided that increases in carbon emissions won’t justify refusal of consent for road schemes for at least another two years. What power will the spatial framework really have to deliver affordable places to live in a zero-carbon future, when the rest of public policy is still so disintegrated?

The consultation on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc runs until 11 October and can be found at PlaceBuilder.

Buckinghamshire countryside
Chilterns in Buckinghamshire Shutterstock

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