Earlier this month, in the unassuming setting of Didcot Civic Hall, representatives from across Oxfordshire quietly discussed the direction of the UK’s most ambitious regional initiative – the Oxford to Cambridge Arc, or Growth Corridor.
The Arc is a locally-led – but Government supported – policy which seeks to unlock the full potential of England’s so-called economic heart land. Through significant infrastructure, housing and technological investment, the Arc promises to deliver over £250bn worth of GVA in an area that takes in Oxford, Milton Keynes, Northampton and Cambridge.
It is easy to forget that phrases like “significant investment” have a real impact on ordinary people’s lives. In the case of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc, this not only means a significant amount of new jobs and homes, but the transformation of the region it into a coherent economic area to rival the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.
Not everyone is fully onboard and at the latest meeting of the Oxfordshire Growth Board, the political response was mixed. The perception that the Arc is simply about maximising economic growth at the expense of both the environment and existing communities is stirring opposition – particularly amongst the new Liberal Democrat councils in South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse.
Of course, the Arc remains in its infancy with no set remit, aims or course of action. As Bev Hindle, Director of the Arc, pointed out: “we will not run before we can walk”.
In a sign that the agenda remains fluid, local leaders have now announced that the environment has been added as a key work stream to the initiative. This follows the recent declaration of a Climate Emergency by the Oxfordshire Liberal Democrats, who now Chair the Growth Board through South Oxfordshire’s Sue Cooper. This builds on similar announcements by Milton Keynes and Cambridge City Council.
Such a commitment is a glimmer of the potential power that the Arc holds. Indeed, through connecting one of the most productive and forward-thinking regions in the country, pooling resources and energy, realising better-outcomes for the UK’s environment are much easier to realise.
It offers the chance to build intelligently and proactively across a highly populated area with immense economic potential. Fundamentally, the Arc can act as an inter-council blue-print to avoid botched or fragmented development which could damage both economic growth and environmental protections.
Whilst separate to the Arc, East-West Rail and the Expressway projects offer pre-emptive solutions to future infrastructure issues. Starting on ambitious infrastructure projects now means better value for money for future generations and ensures future communities will not have to play “catch up” to support inevitable population growth.
The strength of the project continues to be its “coalition of the willing” ethos and this project must be driven by local leaders, not central government.
The Arc is a structure to build economic growth around, based on what we believe are the priorities for the area. It requires strong leadership, cross-party working and inspired thinking. Lets champion collaboration and ask not what the Arc can do for us but rather what we can do for the Arc.