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What is next for the Oxford Cambridge Arc?

Recent Updates

Since our last article in April 2021 (available here), there have been a number of updates in relation to the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (Arc). On 20 July 2021, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) launched a consultation on two documents:

  • ‘Creating a Vision for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’: a document consulting on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Spatial Framework (Framework); and
  • ‘Sustainability Appraisal’: which sets out how sustainability is embedded within the Spatial Framework.

These documents will be critical in setting out the long-term vision for the Arc. It is therefore important for stakeholders (be that developers, landowners or other third parties with interests in the region) to make their views known. The consultation closes at 11:45pm on 12 October 2021 and can be accessed here.

We discuss the content and impact of the Framework and the Sustainability Appraisal below.

In conjunction with the announcement on the consultation, the government announced a new expert panel to advise on sustainable economic and housing growth within the Arc. The panel will be chaired by Emma Cariaga, Joint Head of the Canada Water Development and Head of Residential at British Land. The intention is for the panel to focus on the area between Bedford and Cambridge and to explore the case for new or expanded settlements including those linked to potential East West Rail stations.

Framework

The Framework is intended to plan for economic growth in the Arc to 2050 and beyond, including by setting out: how land is used, how the environment is protected and enhanced; where and what type of new development happens and what infrastructure is provided.

Key pillars of the Framework will be the environment, the economy, connectivity and infrastructure, and place-making.  The Framework will provide a national planning policy framework for the Arc, and will therefore inform Development Plans (including Local Plans), Local Transport Plans and Local Enterprise Partnerships.

The development of the Framework will be supported by two further public consultations. Under the current timetable, these are scheduled for spring 2022 and autumn 2022 (the latter will be a consultation on the Draft Spatial Framework).

What does this mean for developers and landowners?

The Framework will “provide a strategic direction” for Local Plans. In other words, the Framework will influence the policies set locally regarding development and the use of land within the Arc. At this stage, the consultation is focussed on the wider vision for the Arc: considering the importance of infrastructure and building in “sustainable locations” in addition to the provision of affordable housing and design within the Arc. Early engagement will allow parties to shape this vision.

Under the current timetable, in Spring 2022 the Spatial Framework policy options will be produced. Developers and landowners may wish to push for appropriate allocation of their sites at the level of Arc, rather solely seeking release at a local plan level.

Sustainability Appraisal

The purpose of the Sustainability Appraisal (SA) is to ensure that sustainability is embedded within the Framework. Themes scoped in the SA (and opportunities for growth within those themes) include, for example:

  • Historic environment (e.g. encourage public awareness through promoting heritage sites and transport links to sites)
  • Communities (e.g. increase the supply of new homes, help tackle housing affordability, locate works closer to places of work, reduce the Arc’s inequalities)
  • Biodiversity (e.g. promote biodiversity gain; integrate a natural capital approach to influence decision making; grow the value of the Arc’s natural capital)
  • Air quality and climate change (e.g. lead the approach to the national transition to net zero by 2050 by reducing embodied and operational carbon emissions across the Arc; avoid development in areas at high risk of flooding)
  • Transport and Infrastructure (e.g. improve connectivity for east-west journeys; reduce road congestion, housing and utility infrastructure which supports net zero transition and economic/ population growth)

11            The intention is to develop an assessment criteria to assess how the sustainability is being taken into account in the development of the Framework. The criteria will be influenced by the factors above and the consultation seeks views on the scope of the SA including whether any other strategic issues/ opportunities should be included.

One step forward, one step back?

It has not been smooth sailing for the progress of the Arc. Our previous article noted the cancellation of the Oxford-Cambridge expressway and more recently there have been doubts raised about the deliverability of some of the targets for the area. For example, a policy paper produced in November 2017[1] indicated that the Arc could deliver up to one million new homes by 2050. However, in a Westminster Hall Debate in July 2021, Housing Minister Christopher Pincher stated that this figure “is not a government target and it is not a government policy”. He further stated that the Arc “is not about housebuilding; it is about economic development”.

The Minister did not dismiss the importance of housing entirely, indicating that policies within the Framework would allow for “new settlements to come forward at the scale and speed needed” but taking account of constraints such as the green belt.

On 15 September 2021, the cabinet reshuffle resulted in a new Minister for Housing Communities and Local Government. Whether Michael Gove chooses to prioritise development within the Arc given the “levelling up” agenda or whether the targets initially promoted for the Arc (in terms of economic growth, housing and infrastructure) continue to be watered down, only time will tell. For the time being at least, MHCLG (soon to be the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) continues to push forward the policy documents necessary to facilitate strategic development within the Arc.


[1] “Partnering for Prosperity” (2017), National Infrastructure Commission

For more information on the above please contact Sophie Willis.

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