While we await an official response from the government on last year’s consultation on the OxCam Arc “in due course”, it is evident that there has been a significant change in the government’s approach and attitude towards the Arc. Tim Deacon, Director, Turnstone gives his take on the seemingly lost Arc.
As well as the glaring omission of any mention of the Arc in the recent ‘Levelling Up’ white paper – even going so far as to say investment into research and development would now be encouraged in regions outside of the Arc and the South East – the government has officially stated that it has dropped the one million housing target for the Arc, as well as cancelling the Oxford to Cambridge expressway last March.
Anthony Browne, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, then confirmed the already unmistakeable conclusion from these announcements saying that the “OxCam Arc is no longer a government priority.”
So, what does this mean for a scheme that had ambitions to build a better economic, social and environmental future for the cities, towns and rural communities across the area?
Super tankers that won’t be stopped
My view is that the lack of government support will not adversely impact the power houses of the Arc; Cambridge and Oxford. These cities are like super tankers which will not be stopped by another government change of heart, continuing to successfully attract capital, talent and providing business space for growth.
There are plenty of potential sites to accommodate ‘six AstraZeneca’s’ within close proximity of Cambridge or Oxford, on established infrastructure corridors.
This is particularly helped by improving capital values which help make many more sites viable for office, R&D and life science development within the City itself, including the densification of existing business and science parks. Such values can also help fund infrastructure required for less accessible locations.
The housing and transport challenge
However, while we may have the capacity (and likely political support) to create space for business growth, where will the workforce live and how will they travel to work?
The East West Rail is a major infrastructure project which is yet to be delivered, designed to address the lack of east-west transport options which link towns, universities and businesses between Oxford and Cambridge. This piece of infrastructure is key to providing the longer travel distance commuter opportunities, allowing the likes of St Neots and Bedford to become more viable commuter locations. A recent report from Network Rail recognises East West Rail has a wider opportunity to increase capacity beyond the Arc. For example, improvements at Cambridge Station will increase passenger capacity on existing rail routes to the north and east of Cambridge, allowing locations with existing railway stations to contribute to housing growth.
Which leads me to one obvious solution: to focus further housing delivery around some of the towns with existing rail links – the infrastructure already exists and can be delivered relatively quickly. Places such as Dullingham, Newmarket and Kennett are ideally located for additional growth and would benefit from the investment and improvements. Likewise, Ely and Littleport on the Cambridge to King’s Lynn line.
Dullingham in East Cambridgeshire, located 18 km east of Cambridge and 6 km south of Newmarket is an example of how we could create a new, connected, and sustainable community with high-quality housing, biodiversity gains and office space. Regular rail services already provide access to central Cambridge within 18 minutes and will improve significantly with East West Rail. To me, it’s an obvious win-win scheme.
A great example where this is about to happen is Waterbeach, a joint venture to develop an urban extension to Cambridge for about 11,000 homes. One key element of the proposals is that those living or working in the new and existing settlements will have easy access to a frequent and high-quality rail service. This will be provided through a modern new railway station within the site to serve the existing village and new residents.
These types of projects will feed job creation, growth and connectivity and help make people’s journeys, career choices and lives easier.
The ambitions of the Arc will endure
The Arc was really about ‘filling the gap’ between Oxford and Cambridge, trying to extend the tentacles of Oxbridge success to locations such as Bedford and Milton Keynes. With such power houses at the Arc’s book ends, these towns may struggle to become significant life science and tech clusters, but they remain great locations for innovation, engineering and commerce; Arc or no Arc.
While it has become clear that the government does not wish to see the OxCam Arc as a project driven by central government, I remain of the view that we can still deliver the essence of the Arc, provided the Government stands firm on delivering East West Rail.
This will require a more ambitious and collaborative approach to transport led growth at local government level, particularly the Combined Authority, County and neighbouring District Councils together with the private sector.
While the centrally-led concept of the Arc may have been shelved, the reality of it as a hub of connected innovation and ideas remains. Let’s not write off the Arc yet.