The following is an edited transcript of remarks given by Bridget Rosewell, National Infrastructure Commissioner, at a virtual conference held on 26 March 2021 to discuss progress on the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Arc.
“As we gather again to discuss progress on the Oxford-Cambridge arc, it is perhaps helpful to remember the exam question the Commission was set when we first looked at how to maximise the economic opportunities of the area back in 2017.
Firstly, the clue is in the name – it is an arc, not a dumbbell with two large bits at either end. Many of the economic opportunities for the area can be found not just in Oxford or Cambridge, but in Milton Keynes, Cranfield, and Northampton to name a few.
Together, these are already successful areas, which we visited many times when we were undertaking this study. But they are also very expensive areas to live.
Out initial question of how to support the future success of the arc turned in to a question about how you create an effective labour market in which people will be able to afford to live.
Oxford and Cambridge themselves are some of the most expensive places to live in the country. That is particularly relevant not just to senior managers working in the high tech companies across the arc, but to post-doctoral students, nurses and teachers – all of the people you need to run a successful economy and a successful set of places.
Housing to support a flexible labour market
Our view was there is less pressure on identifying the space and other requirements for creating businesses; there was far more pressure on creating the housing needed.
Our assessment was that we needed one million more houses across the whole of the arc, over the course of a generation – a 30 year period – which was about twice the rate of development then being planned.
Now of course you could argue that this development should be concentrated around the most successful cities, by building on the green belt around Oxford and Cambridge. This would, the argument runs, mean that we wouldn’t need to build a railway, for instance.
But I think it is important to step back and think about that proposition. The reason we came to a different conclusion was in part because there are various other very successful places, which don’t get the same headlines, but which are also growing and need to be enabled to continue to grow – such as around Milton Keynes and Cranfield.
But the other reason is that we need to create a successful labour market with flexibility that allows people to move and change jobs in different directions: a labour market which allows you to have a job in, say, Oxford, while your partner has a job in, say, Milton Keynes; or vice versa, and then later on you can both change jobs and reverse that pattern. There are all sorts of combinations of work and life that you make possible by improving the communications east-west across the arc.
Indeed, the Commission has recently shone a light on poor east-west connections in other parts of the country which have been pretty neglected over the last 50 years or so. This is not just between Oxford Cambridge, but Cambridge to Norwich, Oxford to Swindon, and further north, between the West and East Midlands. Everybody has been busy thinking about connections into London rather than connections across. Those strategic connections are some of the most important.
And while things have perhaps moved more slowly than we’d hoped, there has been progress.
We have had the consultation on the East-West Rail scheme route plus the announcement of £760 million of funding for the next phase of the East-West Rail scheme, between Bicester and Bletchley.
In our recent Annual Monitoring Report, the Commission has welcomed this and related announcements from government, and the confidence it has given to England’s Economic Heartland.
Our most recent report also identified that a priority for the government this year must be to progress the work required to develop an initial draft spatial framework for the arc.
This has to work bottom up as well as top down.
This is crucial to ensure that growth is not just imposed on the region from Whitehall, but is worked on by local authorities and local communities with proper engagement between all parties.
That includes good design. The Commission’s Design Group, whose design principles for national infrastructure were positively reflected in commitments in the National Infrastructure Strategy, was partly born out of our work on the arc.
Infrastructure that is provided, and the places it supports, need to be well designed and produce the things that people actually want.
The role of transport
Transport was also an essential element of the Commission’s work on the arc. Transport can have a catalysing effect for growth, alongside other interventions.
While transport is necessary, it isn’t sufficient without the links between the transport infrastructure and the places.
One of the challenges for the arc has been deciding on the most appropriate linkages between transport and places. One of things we spent considerable time thinking about was the ‘last mile’ in the journey between home and work, and the best location for public transport infrastructure.
There is still quite a lot of work ahead to get to phase 3 of East-West Rail – the new line between Bedford and Cambridge.
The location of this link – and how it plays into the potential developments along the outline route – is fundamentally important to the whole Arc, not just the eastern section.
Making sure you get the right engagement with local communities to try and secure as much as support as is possible for the new piece of railway is going to be very important.
For Cambridge South station, the next step is for Network Rail to submit a Transport and Works Act Order to the planning inspectorate. This is a well embedded process.
But we still have the challenge of deciding what bits of road are still needed, even if we are not proceeding with the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway. I do think that, particularly as we move forward into a world of electric vehicles, people will still want to have access to roads. Roads are a fundamental piece of technology, which have been around for millennia. People will continue to need to use roads, not least for moving goods – your deliveries will still need to get to you.
Collaborative decision making
Making sure we get the right balance between what is happening in Whitehall and what is happening on the ground is vital.
We also need to think about the right use of development corporations. I do think they have a useful role, in bringing together powers in one place, particularly when it comes to linkages. But they need to be development corporations that are embedded in the locality.
In conclusion, we need to grow in the self-confidence that we can deliver on this work. Not everybody is going to like everything. There is a scale to housing challenge. But we are moving forward, and things are starting to happen.
We see it at the Bletchley Flyover, we see it at Cambridge South station, alongside the consultation on the completion of the East-West Rail link.
The arc is one of the most successful parts of the country and it needs to stay successful.
It needs to provide job opportunities for the children and grandchildren of the people who live there now. But of course, any plans need to be acceptable to the current communities and this is where proper engagement is so crucial.
It has taken a while, but that is not unusual – or necessarily a bad thing – when it comes to complex projects that involve so many people. Let’s hope we can continue to pick up the pace and help create a prosperous arc for the future.”