Guest Blog by Hilary Chipping, the chair of the Transport Knowledge Hub Board, and Deputy CEO and Head of Strategy & Operation at South East Midlands LEP.
The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) Interim Report last October on the Cambridge – Milton Keynes – Northampton – Oxford corridor of growth suggested that this area could be UK’s Silicon Valley – a world renowned centre for science, technology and innovation. However, the NIC added that a lack of sufficient and suitable housing presents a fundamental risk to the success of the area. The undersupply of housing is made worse by poor east-west connectivity.
The Commission recommended that East West Rail project and the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway should be taken forward urgently. They are once-in-a-generation investments that will deliver substantial national benefits and, if designed properly, can provide the foundation for the corridor’s long-term prosperity.
The Commission’s discussion document in March considered what could be achieved by the partners if we were to adopt an integrated approach to strategic planning.
This has generated a lot of activity amongst Local Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) along the corridor. Although there is a desire to present a unified response that would enable a dialogue with Government about an ‘infrastructure compact’, achieving this in reality is proving difficult.
This is an area that is used to being pulled in different directions. Back in the days of ‘regions’ the ‘corridor’ was split across the East Midlands, East of England and the South East. The advent of LEPs allowed local authorities to form functional economic areas, which firmly linked Milton Keynes, Northampton, Bedford, Luton and Aylesbury. This area, which lies between London and the Midlands, has good transport connections to the north and south but has always struggled with east-west connections. This is why the East West Rail Project has been so widely supported, but its delivery has not been easy. At one stage, it looked as though the section between Oxford and Bedford could be completed as early as 2017, but now completion is predicted by 2024 and the price tag has increased considerably. Our hopes are pinned on Rob Brighouse to deliver this vital project using an innovative model to engage more private sector support.
Route options for the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway are being considered by Highways England. There is some way to go before an acceptable route is identified.
As we have seen before with so many ambitious infrastructure projects, delays can lead to cost increases and the project is suddenly at risk of being part of an expensive ‘wish list’ rather than a prioritised and deliverable programme.
However, in this case I suggest that it will be agreeing the governance arrangements, that may put at risk the achievement of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth in the corridor, rather than the project risks.
There is already a lot of activity in this area with the advent of the Cambridgeshire Peterborough Combined Authority and elected Mayor at one end of the Corridor and the Oxfordshire Growth Board at the other end. The group of Transport Authorities known as England’s Economic Heartland aspire to become a Sub National Transport Body following in the footsteps of Transport for the North and Midlands Connect. This could provide the basis for the strategic transport element of governance arrangements for the Corridor. Local planning authorities are coming together in the middle of the corridor to develop a Memorandum of Understanding building on the Duty to Cooperate.
It now remains for agreement to be reached about the higher level of governance to oversee the delivery of economic development along the Corridor. Responses are due to be with the Commission by 31st May. Some of us will remember the Oxford to Corridor Arc, which was much heralded in the early 2000s with so much potential, but eventually collapsed into a triangle with London at the apex. This time we have a real chance to deliver the full potential for economic growth – housing and jobs – that this area can achieve. To do so will require strong political leadership and private sector engagement as well as investment in infrastructure to strengthen east-west connectivity. Let us hope that this time we can all work together and succeed in enabling the Oxford to Cambridge corridor to fuel the British economy and compete on the world stage.
Image: Jenny Williams
About the Author
This post was written by Hilary Chipping. Hilary Chipping is the CHief Executive of South East Midlands LEP.