The future of the Oxford to Cambridge Region – Back to basics to unlock growth
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending ‘The future of the Oxford to Cambridge Region’ conference in Milton Keynes. It seemed apt this was held in the ‘City of the Future’, as the same ambition and forward thinking will likely be needed again to unlock Oxford to Cambridge region’s growth potential.
For the government, local developers and councils, the business case for the region is obvious. With two of the greatest universities in the world developing the latest in science and technology, hosting the majority of F1 teams in Milton Keynes or Brackley, not to mention many of the London commuter spots such as Luton, Milton Keynes, Northampton and Stevenage – it seems rational to talk up the possibilities this region could bring.
Yet, while there was a lot of individually good ideas in the pipeline (investment in innovation parks, diversifying BTR portfolios, promoting sustainable development), there seems little consensus on realistically achieving a unified goal.
Many in the property industry will remember the ambitious Oxford-Cambridge Arc, which would create an ‘arc of innovation and entrepreneurial activity’. This would be achieved by developing a new rail line – East West Rail – and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. The plan was projected to support over two million jobs, double housebuilding in the area and add over £110bn to the economy every year.
The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway was eventually cancelled, and while the East West rail line is still alive, the plans have been bogged down in negotiations for years.
As a result, conference delegates from across the industry came in with some reservations about what can be achieved in the short term. One noted this was the sixth conference they had attended on the Oxford-Cambridge region and questioned what had been achieved in that time.
From my conversations and listening to the speakers, I believe the answer to unlocking growth will be found in several forms.
Firstly, the case for development in the Oxford to Cambridge region must be correctly communicated to the public. South Cambs’ leader, Cllr Bridget Smith spoke at the conference urging developers to get the optics right with the existing community. It is not enough to dictate to existing residents what they need, but rather developers should demonstrate how new development will benefit current residents, how community infrastructure will be provided and an emphasis on developers getting local authorities onside.
These views demonstrate the reality of what is being asked here of multiple authorities within the Oxford – Cambridge region. Namely, how do we balance growth with the needs of existing communities?
Secondly, a genuine strategic plan to deliver growth to make successful growth a reality. There is already some movement in this, with the formation of the Oxford to Cambridge Partnership. This is a group of leaders from local government, Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Arc Universities Group and England’s Economic Heartland.
Their vision is to collaborate with local communities to accelerate economic opportunities created through the region’s natural strengths, to achieve significant environmental enhancements and unlock investment for inclusive, high quality sustainable development. This part of a growing belief that the Government should focus more on a locally led initiative to drive development and growth, rather than the government led scheme such as the Oxford to Cambridge Arc.
Finally, it is critical that we remove the current blockages within the planning system. Speaking to delegates at the conference, there is considerable frustration about the lack of resources in local government and especially their planning departments. According to Planning Resource, between 2009 – 2021, local authority net spending on planning has been cut by 59%, driven largely by central government grant funding cuts leading to local planning authorities having to cut staff.
Combine this with the backlog of applications created through COVID, and the simple fact that the private sector is a natural career step for young planners, there is a real need for the government to fund planning departments again. Otherwise, plans to activate the Oxford-Cambridge region will never be realised at the pace required to secure consistent growth. Nor will it allow councils to negotiate agreeable infrastructure improvements and payments.
Overall, the debate around how to unlock the Oxford to Cambridge Region seems to be an example of everyone aggressively agreeing with each other. Councils, developers and the community all want to see better housing, more sustainable infrastructure and applications completed in a timely manner. It must be unlocked by following a ‘back-to-basics’ approach through collaboration, investment and engagement.