Most Cambridgeshire residents will have heard rumours of the “Oxford-Cambridge Arc”, not least because the Chancellor gave an additional £20million in his recent Budget to explore its feasibility. So, what exactly is this “Arc” and, if it ever materialises, how will it affect the Cambridge area?

What is the OxCam Arc Project?

The Arc, as currently envisaged by Government, is a development corridor stretching from Oxford to Cambridge via Bicester, Milton Keynes and Bedford. Its stated purpose is to promote the creation of the UK’s version of Silicon Valley by linking the academic, research, and business assets of region so as to create an “arc” (actually more of a sausage!) of innovation and entrepreneurial activity that will drive the UK’s future growth.

The academic, research, and entrepreneurial skills are already well recognised. Oxford and Cambridge are amongst the most innovative cities in the country, as measured by the annual number of new patent applications, and Milton Keynes has one of the highest rates of new business start-ups. What is lacking to boost this potential is the supportive infrastructure. The Government is therefore proposing a massive investment comprising:

  • An Oxford - Cambridge Expressway road link
  • A Cambridge to Bedford railway that will allow an East-West rail connection
  • One million new homes and jobs within the Arc to be completed by 2050

This could be a massive scheme, that in scale and complexity will dwarf even HS2. The Government has therefore turned to the National Infrastructure Commission, but it in turn has appreciated that its planning and development must be integrated with the development plans of the local planning authorities, including the Cambridge & Peterborough Combined Authority, which will therefore be responsible for delivery. A plan for the Arc, setting out a 50-year vision, is to be prepared with statutory spatial plans for each sub-region, including the creation of New Towns along the lines of Milton Keynes, with new compulsory purchase powers and the finance to ensure delivery.

The potential impact of a project of this magnitude, the largest house building programme since the war, has inevitably set alarm bells ringing. How will it all be coordinated and managed?  What will be the social and environmental impacts, and how will these be mitigated?  The land it will cover includes some beautiful unspoilt countryside, so does this not warrant protection?  And inevitably it will have a major impact on the two main cities at either end, Oxford and Cambridge, as it will be on these destinations that much of the development will focus.

What might be the impact on Cambridge?

The major impact is likely to arise from the additional two million people living within reach of Cambridge. This will inevitably lead to more commuters, shoppers, and visitors filling our already crowded streets. Does the city have the capacity to handle such an influx without destroying all we hold dear about Cambridge?

Experience shows that new businesses, particularly in the high-tech sector, prefer to co-locate with like-minded companies in established clusters and research parks, so although the housing may be spread across the Arc, most of the employment will be concentrated in, or around, the two main entrepreneurial centres. There is likely, therefore, to be a marked acceleration in demand for employment land in and around Cambridge, assurances have been given that the Green Belt will not be affected but this remains to be seen.

The primary determinant in deciding the location of new settlements and towns must therefore be the adequacy of existing transport links or the feasibility of providing additional transport capacity. However, experience also shows that just providing good rail or bus services is insufficient to persuade drivers to give up their cars so more direct measures will be needed to combat congestion, even including the introduction of a daily charge to drive within the city. The chronic traffic and air pollution problems we already face can only get worse with such massive additional development on our doorstep unless corrective action is taken in advance.

The transport infrastructure will be fundamental to the success of the project. In this context, the East-West rail link will be critical, both in terms of its route and the service it can provide. The railway is being progressed by the private East West Rail Company, set up in late 2017. The line from Bedford to Oxford already exists, so the crucial section is Bedford to Cambridge. The East West Rail Company is considering two options: a southern route past Sandy, Potton, and close to the Wimpole Estate, which essentially follows the old rail line coming into Cambridge and would connect with the existing railway somewhere in between Meldreth and Shelford: or a northern route connecting St Neots and Cambourne, and connecting to the existing railway somewhere between Waterbeach and Cambridge North.

The southern route will be quicker and cheaper to construct but passes through attractive and sensitive countryside with no settlements. This includes impinging on the National Trust Wimpole Estate and the Wildlife Trust’s West Cambridgeshire Hundreds Living Landscape. As well as the impact of the railway itself, it would also then generate speculative development proposals in this sensitive area (a stated aim of the OxCam Arc is to locate new development next to new transport infrastructure).

By contrast, the northerly corridor would serve the fast-growing communities of St Neots’ and Cambourne, which are not currently connected by public transport to the fast-growing jobs in Cambridge. Depending on the route this could also service some growing communities in the Huntingdon-Cambridge corridor. Generally, the northern corridor contains less sensitive countryside. This route would also help reduce traffic congestion with potential cost-savings for other congestion schemes being proposed (or even a re-think on the controversial Cambourne-Cambridge busway).

So, will the decision be driven by cost-savings or by maximising the public benefit?  Surely trains, as a mass public transport system, should go where the people are, and development should be located around already planned growth centres not in attractive countryside? Their preferred option so far is for the southerly route.

East West Rail Company had not been planning to consult the public on this decision which is being made behind closed doors. We, and others, are lobbying our MPs and Council leaders to make the case to the East West Rail Company, and government, for the northern route. We are asking that the northern route be included as a comparator to the southern route and that the public and other stakeholders are given a say on the options.

As I understand it, East West Rail Company/government was planning on announcing the southerly route by January and then offering a public consultation on the precise alignment of that route. This would be completely unacceptable for a scheme of such importance.

The East-West Express Road link involves the construction of a dual carriageway route between the two cities. The key section in Cambridgeshire is the bottleneck of the A428 between the Caxton Gibbet and the A1 which is to be dualled. The people of greater Cambridge also want to see this include an upgrade of the Girton Interchange into a four-way junction with the M11 and A14 which will alleviate traffic currently using the A1303 down Madingley Hill – however Highways England are not positive about this as they don’t really consider traffic congestion unless it is on their own network. It is worth noting that the East-West Express Road could have significant impacts in Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire where there is growing opposition.

Are we being sold a red herring?

Are there really going to be over 1 million new jobs created in this corridor in 30 years? So why all the housing? The fact is that much of the new housing would serve as London overspill. Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bicester, Bedford and Cambridge all have good road and rail connections to the capital, which is running out of space for housing and is becoming unaffordable.

Currently there is poor infrastructure to connect the Arc area with freight arriving in Ipswich (both via land and rail), East-West Rail and the Expressway would service this need.

Some of the motivations behind the Arc are not about creating a new Silicon Valley but addressing other issues in the south-east. Is the Arc concept a marketing tactic to make it easier to sell to local communities who might otherwise object to this scale of change; and to placate the other regions of the UK who are also demanding transport investment?

Will It Actually Happen?

To the extent that any political decision these days involving a major investment in infrastructure must carry a health-warning, the Treasury does seem determined to drive this scheme forward. Clearly, in the post-Brexit UK, any Government is likely to want to boost the performance of its most successful regional economies, like Cambridge, in the belief that investment in winners will create a spin-off that benefits the rest of the country. There would seem to be pressure for London overspill and better East-West transport connections, so it would be very foolhardy to assume it will all simply go away.

If it is to succeed, then it is going to require exceptional vision and leadership. What confidence do we have that such assets are going to be available?  From Cambridge’s perspective, we need to maintain a sustainable level of growth that the city can assimilate without allowing this additional Government inspired growth to swamp our daily lives.  A balance must be achieved between growth and quality of life, for if that special ambience of Cambridge and its surrounding countryside is forfeit in a dash for growth, it will have an immediate and direct impact on the future prosperity of our area.