In a perfect world, planning is about delivering ambitious growth in a sustainable way through shared objectives, proactive placemaking and collaboration. In an imperfect world, it’s about political infighting, arbitration and potential legal challenges. So where does this leave all of us looking to unlock the potential of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc?
I’ve looked on with frustration as the Oxfordshire Growth Deal has been dragged into the political quicksand. We’re a bit further behind in Cambridge, but this was meant to be the initial blueprint for achieving growth in at least part of the Arc. An example of collective commitment across authorities for shared gain. But it’s faltering because of the Liberal Democrat position in South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse post the May local elections. So it feels like we’re going backwards before we can go forwards.
I can take some comfort that Robert Jenrick has, in the case of South Oxfordshire, threatened to get involved, but from a planning perspective I don’t think the solution is in ‘top down’ either. The lessons from Gordon Brown’s eco-town policy are still raw for many of us. Nor is that approach compatible with localism which, albeit dialled down a bit, is still a serious and strong tenor of Conservatism. And it is Conservatives who control most of the authorities in the Arc and, if the opinion polls are anything to go by, will control Downing Street on 13 December. However, from an infrastructure perspective it is absolutely essential that Government throws its weight into the ring, hence why I was so frustrated to see Grant Shapps announce a review of the case for the Expressway – even if this is just a pre-election stunt.
So what happens next?
Maybe I’ve been drinking the happy juice but perhaps now more than ever, the onus is on all of us who believe in the potential of the Arc to make the case for it. To demonstrate that the benefits outweigh the fears of impact and harm.
There needs to be a robust development case. We need to view the Arc, to use government speak, as a programme not a project. If we can prove the investment case, the business case and highlight the balance of benefits over harm, then we will be going in the right direction. We need to build on what the NIC has started, but to support growth we need to take the communities and the local politicians they represent on that journey, and it starts with highlighting the benefits to them.
‘Quid pro quo’ has always been a slightly vulgar phrase and I’m loathe to use it on the heels of Trump versus Biden but it captures the argument succinctly. What’s in it for the communities from Bedford to Bicester and Cambourne to Winslow exactly?
Personally and as a planner in Cambridge, my view is that the Arc is absolutely necessary, valuable and the right ambition in the right place. Having worked in London for 15 years, I have seen how a single regional plan can work across 32 boroughs in one city. This is clearly very different, but similarly to the hierarchy of centres and opportunity areas of that plan, you can in the Arc see the logic for maximising assets and for linking strategic growth to existing business hubs, beacons of learning and transport nodes. But until people and politicians can grasp the argument – and it has to be made in compelling terms for them – we are all in danger of trying to push water uphill.
I want to see good growth in the Arc. I want to see East-West rail happen quicker to enable a better-connected and more sustainable transport corridor. I want to see more accessible and affordable homes in support of mixed and resilient communities.
We won’t achieve these objectives with a vision which remains, for many, wordy and woolly. We’ll get there if planners, politicians, business leaders and stakeholders of all kinds can articulate a clear, compelling and convincing case.
The ‘do nothing’ option is always dangerous and it sometimes wins out when competing arguments are weak or poorly formed. Post the General Election, I’m hoping for more vigour from government on driving the domestic agenda and I would put the Arc right up there.
Communities are not putting their hands up for growth because no one is giving them a good enough reason to.
With the great university cities of Oxford and Cambridge bookending either end of the Arc, let’s hope for a more enlightened approach. The case for the Arc must stand scrutiny. It needs to pass examination. There’s some serious thinking to be done in many quarters so let’s all get our heads down and let’s help to make it happen.
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