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Businesses propose major Oxford-Cambridge development shake-up

Twenty-five leading property chiefs and businesses are calling for an “Olympic-style” body to deliver infrastructure and housing required to develop the area between Oxford and Cambridge, a development project known as the “Oxford-Cambridge Arc”.

Their proposal would entail a single body on which thirty-one local councils work with private developers to better deliver the ‘Arc’ project.

Parts of the proposed development, most contentiously the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway road, already face opposition from both Oxford Extinction Rebellion and the Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran, among others. They suggest the proposals would compromise greenbelt areas and pose wider environmental challenges.

There is also frustration at the current lack of public consultation with decisive power residing with central government.

The original Oxford to Cambridge Arc initiative was launched in 2003 and aimed to capitalize on the educational, research and business assets found in the area. It was then turbocharged by a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report in 2017.

There it was suggested that the Gross Value Added of the area could be increased by £163bn to a total of £250bn by doubling house-building rates in the area and delivering East-West Rail and the Oxford-Cambridge Express-way.

This would include the creation of one million new homes and jobs by 2050 and the country’s first new towns in 50 years.

This is particularly ambitious as for the scheme to work, Oxfordshire would have to provide 300,000 homes despite currently containing 280,000. The Chair of the NIC, Lord Adonis, said it constituted a “ground-breaking deal between ministers and local leaders that could transform the area.”

However, it was criticised by George Monbiot as amounting to a “Oxford-Cambridge conurbation”, an unnecessary expansion.

Conversely, the plan received support from local government leaders with new powers proposed for local councils to fund and raise finance for major infrastructure developments and combat burgeoning house prices. However, this has not yet materialised and further delays have stymied the project.

For example, the opening of rail services to Cowley East will be delayed beyond 2019 and Councillor John Howson has called for the project to ‘get back on track’. Despite this, the sense of urgency has not decreased as house prices have risen by 73% in Cambridge and 67% in Oxford, in the last decade.

In July of this year, Housing Minister Kit Malthouse and Business Secretary Greg Clark supported four Local Industrial Strategies along the Arc.

These were developed with local authorities, businesses, and government, and intend to “set out how the area will deliver the national Industrial Strategy’s aim to raise productivity levels and to create high-quality, well paid jobs.”

However, local authorities were only given seven weeks (during parliamentary recess and the school holidays) to come up with housing proposals, some to house over 150,000 people.

This is expounded in the forthcoming ‘Radial Regeneration Manifesto’ produced by property consultancy Bidwells, architect Perkins & Will and public relations spinners Blackstock Consulting. Bidwells advise over 60% of Oxford colleges on their property and investment strategy, and the Manifesto is supported by Oxford University Innovation.

The atmosphere appears promising as the current Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, described Bidwells proposals Party housing as a ‘down-payment Conference on broader ideas to come’, at the Conservative over the summer. The Manifesto calls for automatic brownfield development rights, a people’s planning lottery, Visas for STEM News students, houses for workers, and much more.

Bidwells senior partner Patrick McMahon argued that to preserve the competitiveness of the area ‘a long-term strategy that encourages public-private collaboration is crucial’.

The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) inspiring the proposal was a successful public-private partnership that oversaw the planning and construction of the Olympic Park in East London. They were responsible for eight sport venues, the Olympic Village, transport infrastructure, and the 2,800 homes built after the games.

That the ODA’s success was primarily attributable to its wide-ranging powers over local bodies and the prior compulsory purchase of the land in East Lon- don may be a cause for concern for some in Oxford who would rather empower regional authorities.

The Expressway remains the most contentious issue within the broad Arc project. The No Expressway Alliance points to the lack of public consultation or evidence that it would work to reduce congestion.

This is echoed by Oxford Extinction Rebellion who oppose the expressway road on account of greener alternatives, as transport already makes up 27% of total UK carbon emissions.

Layla Moran strongly opposes the £4 billion cost of the Express- way, but calls for the electrification of lines required for the East-West rail link to be accelerated. Moran has in the past described the Expressway as,”unpopular and questionable”.

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