Concilio Opinion: Will 2021 be the Year of the Arc?

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc: a term familiar to many in the planning world. Originally pitched as a project to bring forward one million new homes across the South East, this ambition has now evolved. Central government is now looking to the Arc to be at the forefront of some of the UK’s biggest industries including zero-carbon aviation, life sciences and energy.

As investment and interest in the knowledge economy grows, it seems to make more and more sense to pump funding into this region that has such a high potential for economic growth.  The current economic output of the area is £111bn, with ambitions to grow that figure to £200bn+ by 2050. Places such as the Harwell campus in South Oxfordshire are good examples of how such potential can be harnessed.

An example of strong master planning in the area is the development of the land east of Biggleswade, brought forward by UK Regeneration. They are proposing to create a sustainable new community that will eventually grow to 7,000 homes in size with an active travel corridor running through the centre that will link up with East West Rail, thus minimising reliance on cars. This endeavour shows how new development can be hugely successful and can meet not only the wider ambitions of the Arc project, but also the needs of existing and future residents.

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough James Palmer is also making strides to bolster Cambridge with vital homes and infrastructure. Under his leadership, the Cambridge Autonomous Metro – a sustainable transport offer that will eventually run from St Neots to Haverhill – is moving forward. His latest vision is Cambridge is targeted at tackling the affordability crisis: Mayor Palmer is championing ‘£100k homes’, aimed at young professionals typically priced out of the area.

However, in spite of some of these successes, the Arc name continues to evoke a concept rather than a tangible area of progress and development. Although ideas for this Arc were devised as far back as 2003, there has been little progress towards achieving any desired outcomes.

Developments have been piecemeal and completed at a local level, a far cry from the so-called ‘collaborative’ process that was meant to herald a new era for planning. There is no joint plan for the region, and numerous local plans across the area have changed during the last decade. Buckinghamshire, a major county in the centre of the region, pulled out of the project in October 2020. As a new unitary authority, they’ve decided to make their own decisions about planning and infrastructure, rather than have these choices made by a combined group of local authorities.

Schemes that were previously at the heart of the project have been abandoned. Plans for a new road linking Oxford and Cambridge were paused in March 2020 owing to enormous levels of opposition to the proposals from local authorities as well as community groups that faced Highways England. The East-West Cambridge Rail venture has been held up by Covid-19 and is yet another delay to a project constantly thwarted by hold-ups and slow decision-making.

So, what next for the Arc? Firstly, it is essential that the LEPs, local authorities and universities involved in the project come together to create a unified plan for both homes and infrastructure. Secondly, central government must fulfil its promise to produce an Arc Spatial Framework, to help guide initial growth. Lastly, meaningful community engagement must be central, ensuring that people are at the heart of the process and a sense of excitement is generated.

Imogen Bath is an Account Manager at Concilio.