One by one they fall. HS2 has gone in the form it was billed. There will be no bridge or tunnel from Northern Ireland to Scotland. Before that, of course, we had the idea for a London airport built on an island in the Thames Estuary and the Garden Bridge. There was talk, too, of an English Channel bridge. Word reaches me that the latest, to have its future heavily questioned in the recesses of Whitehall is the Oxford-Cambridge Arc or as it is known within government, OxCam Arc or the Arc.
Originally proposed in 2003 by three regional development agencies, the plan was for a huge increase in housebuilding accompanied by new, improved rail and road links between Oxford and Cambridge, taking in Milton Keynes. This “arc” of science and technology, innovation and entrepreneurial activity will be “best in the field” and it appeals enormously to the Prime Minister.
It follows, too, the thinking, now endorsed by the Confederation of British Industry, that the way to advance the economy is to focus on “clusters” built around existing centres of excellence.
In February 2021, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published a policy paper setting out how the Government would work closely with local councils and partners to develop a plan that will “support long-run sustainable economic growth across the area”; “help to make the area a brilliant place to live, work and travel in – for existing residents and future communities alike”; and “support lasting improvements to the environment, green infrastructure and biodiversity”.
The document spoke about how the Arc would embrace “a unique business, science and technology ecosystem”. It would take in 10 higher education centres, among them Cranfield, the Open University as well as Oxford and Cambridge.
The Arc, “accounts for 7.1 per cent of England’s economic output and it is home to some of the country’s fastest growing and most innovative places. Cambridge’s rate of patent applications – a key indicator of innovation – is the highest in the UK, at over 12 times the national average. Milton Keynes is the fastest growing city in the country.”
There was mention, too, of the Arc’s contribution to defeating the pandemic. “Work on the COVID-19 vaccine, testing and treatment is the latest example of the Arc’s unique innovation and business environment leading efforts to tackle a global challenge.”
Developing the Arc was “a clear transformational opportunity”. By 2050, said the paper, we could be looking at output across the area growing by up to £163bn per annum and the creation of 1.1m additional jobs. “The Arc’s success is key to the UK’s national prosperity, international competitiveness, and ability to meet the challenges and opportunities we will face as a country over the next century, including climate change and supporting nature recovery, technological change, fighting COVID-19 and preventing future pandemics.”
In September, the Prime Minister wrote the foreword to another policy paper, outlining the national strategy for developing industries devoted to exploring and harnessing space.
Declared Johnson: “The days of the UK space industry idling on the launch pad are over – this government has the Right Stuff, and this strategy marks the start of the countdown.”
The paper emphasised: “We will link local clusters into valuable networks of innovators and investors, showcasing the strengths of the UK space sector and leveraging the Harwell cluster in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc to provide a compelling ‘front door’ for international investors in the heart of the UK’s leading space business hub.”
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In the background, away from the boosterism, the newly created Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been quietly consulting on the Arc. It’s not gone well, the project has not been so positively received, not in its intended form.
The plan was for the building of 1m new homes (if it was watered down or dropped completely, there would be plenty of housebuilders and developers having invested heavily in likely sites and angrily left high and dry) plus two major transport infrastructure projects, the East West Rail link, and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway road. The latter was due to cost £3.5bn, but it’s already been scrapped by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps as not “cost-effective”.
East West Rail is intended to join East Anglia with Central, Southern and Western England, avoiding the need to go via London. Part of it takes in the resurrection of the old Varsity Line between Oxford and Cambridge. Reopening the Varsity Line, which closed to passengers in 1968, is going ahead, albeit slowly. It benefits from the government’s preference for trains over cars, and switching road users to rail, something that helped scupper the Oxford Cambridge Expressway.
It’s not lost on the Government that the city councils at either end of the Arc are not Conservative, neither are the in-between South Oxfordshire and South Cambridgeshire district councils. Far from working with them, there are some Tories who are not so keen to give these bodies a fillip.
Matters are not helped by the fact there is considerable opposition to the Arc from council and other community groups. South Oxfordshire councillors, for instance, argue that where the Arc is concerned, economic growth has been put ahead of local people, that they were not consulted.
They are also playing the “levelling up” card, saying that the Arc does not square with the stated aim of boosting the deprived post-industrial North and Midlands.
Scepticism is not confined to the opposition parties. Anthony Browne, the Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire, says the construction of so many new homes cannot be underpinned by the existing transport links and utilities. He wrote last month: “Not only do we not have the infrastructure to support more housing, but we also do not have enough of the most fundamental natural resource – water – to support such growth. It will take decades to address the water shortage issues.” Browne continued: “The [Arc] cannot seek to jam homes across our countryside that South Cambridgeshire can no longer support. What does South Cambridgeshire need? Not yet more new housing, but a better quality of life for our current and future residents.”
Do not be surprised if the Arc joins the growing list of big-ticket initiatives that Johnson loved, only to be abandoned completely or much reduced when reason kicked in.