27 March 2019
Earlier this month, a document called ‘the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’ was released jointly by the Government and local councils.
In the Government’s words, the arc “has a unique opportunity to become an economic asset of international standing- a place that demonstrates the very best of British business and innovation, and for the benefit of local communities and the country as a whole”.
The arc proposals build on a series of recommendations from the National Infrastructure Commission in 2017 to increase economic activity, improve infrastructure and build new homes along this route (up to one million homes by 2050).
Some aspects of the document were very welcome. In particular, it seemed to focus far more strongly on the creation of a reliable East to West railway link, than on the creation of a new road. As readers will be aware, plans for a so-called ‘Expressway’ have been highly controversial.
Previously, additional housing has often been described as contingent on building this new road. Encouragingly, no mention at all of the expressway was provided in the ‘joint declaration’ in the arc document, and only ‘improvements to the strategically important roads network’. It therefore would seem sensible for any plans for a new road to be paused until the new railway line is up and running, at which point a proper consideration could be made of whether we really need such a new road (which could be environmentally very damaging).
Less positively, while the lack of affordability of local housing was mentioned in the document, no clear mechanisms were set out to ensure that new homes would actually be within the reach of local people. I recently met with Kit Malthouse, the Minister of State for Housing, to ask him to push the need for social and genuinely affordable housing along the arc. He maintained that all planning decisions would be up to local councils. While I accept that this is formally the case, he could still make it clear that a proliferation of expensive ‘executive homes’ is not needed, here in Oxfordshire nor indeed anywhere along the corridor. Instead we desperately need quality homes for everyone; not just high-paid executives but everyone else, from hospital porters to teachers to retail assistants.
Finally, while there was a commitment in the document to try to leave ‘the environment in a better state for future generations’, there was not very much detail about how this could be achieved. I have lobbied for the Secretary of State for Transport to rethink his opposition to electrifying the East-West rail-link. Electric rail is the future and failure to make East-West rail electric from the beginning is bad for our environment and a waste of money.
While the document did support East-West rail, it would have been positive to see more reference to other forms of public transport as well. This should include the re-opening of branch lines like the Cowley branch line, which I continue to push for; provision for cyclists being taken much more seriously; and additional bus routes, especially in areas which are currently poorly served.