Well here’s an interesting R number: regional planning for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
Last week MHCLG published Planning for sustainable growth in the Oxford- Cambridge Arc: An introduction to the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Spatial Framework (18 February 2021). “Spatial framework” is a regional plan by any other name. The document is only a precursor to the plan itself. A (fast) timeline is set out, as follows:
The accompanying statement indicates that the Government’s ambition for the Arc is expressed in cautiously generic language:
“There is an opportunity, recognised by government and local partners, to build a better economic, social and environmental future for the area. With high-quality, well-connected and sustainable communities making the Arc an even more beautiful place to live, work and visit.”
“To achieve this ambition, the government alongside local partners, is going to:
• Develop a Spatial Framework for the Arc; a long-term regional plan to help coordinate the infrastructure, environment and new developments in the area. We are committed to working with local communities throughout so we can create beautiful and sustainable places for residents and workers to enjoy.
• Explore the creation of an Arc Growth Body; that would be a clear economic leadership voice for the Arc, championing its talent and assets internationally, supporting businesses, and fostering innovation.”
Government announcements these days invariably comprise a series of related statements and documents. So for completeness there was also a separate MHCLG press statement on the same day, Government plan to transform Oxford-Cambridge Arc into UK’s fastest growing economic region (18 February 2021)
The documents say this about the likely nature and governance of the Arc Growth Body and of its likely delivery structure:
“ To realise the full opportunities – and overcome the challenges – will require coordination of planning functions across the region. Local councils cannot do this on their own because of the level of coordination needed across the area, and because they do not have all the levers needed to develop a genuinely integrated plan. Government needs to play a supporting role to bring together a strategic approach at the Arc level to support better planning and ultimately better outcomes for the economy, environment and communities.”
“Over the next two and a half years, a specialist team in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will work with communities and local partners to develop a robust, evidence-based Spatial Framework. “
“The nature and content of the Spatial Framework will be subject to the outcome of both detailed consultation and sustainability appraisal.”
“We will seek to implement the Spatial Framework as spatially specific national planning policy. Local planning authorities preparing local development documents (including local plans) will have to have regard to the Spatial Framework, as they do with other national policies and guidance.”
“We have […] made a commitment to examine the case for development corporations, linked to the new transport hubs around East West Rail stations.”
“Specifically, the Spatial Framework will:
• provide an assessment of existing employment land, planned growth and anticipated future need
• set policies to support local planning authorities in allocating these as Strategic Business Zones or Strategic Industrial Locations, as appropriate
• set policies to support different land uses for different sectors and sizes of business”
“The Spatial Framework will also outline policies to enable sustainable, transport-led development. This will include policies to enable:
• new settlements to come forward at the scale and speed needed
• new development to support habitat recovery, delivery of Local Nature Recovery Strategies, and provision of good-quality green space within schemes
• brownfield redevelopment and densification, and expansion of existing settlements, in sustainable locations or locations that can be made more sustainable by enhanced access to sustainable transport modes
• housing needs to be met in full, including delivery of much-needed affordable housing”
To put a little flesh on the bones, it’s worthwhile looking back what was said in its March 2020 budget policy paper:
“The OxCam Arc
2.128 The government has designated the corridor of land connecting Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambridge (the OxCam Arc) as a key economic priority. Earlier this year, the government announced the East West Rail Company’s preferred route for the new line between Bedford and Cambridge. The government will also, subject to planning consents, build a new rail station at Cambridge South, improving connectivity to the world-leading research facilities of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus – the largest cluster of medical and life sciences research in Europe.
2.129 The Budget announces plans to develop, with local partners, a long-term Spatial Framework to support strategic planning in the OxCam Arc. This will support the area’s future economic success and the delivery of the new homes required by this growth up to 2050 and beyond. The government is also going to examine and develop the case for up to four new Development Corporations in the OxCam Arc at Bedford, St Neots/Sandy, Cambourne and Cambridge, which includes plans to explore the case for a New Town at Cambridge, to accelerate new housing and infrastructure development.”
Indeed, earlier this month, MHCLG started a tender process for a “planning/engagement specialist to support the Government in developing an approach to engaging local audiences (both stakeholder groups and the public) throughout the process of developing up to four new or expanded settlements in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (OxCam Arc) aligned with new stations along the East West Rail (EWR) Central Section. The specific locations under consideration are Bedford, St Neots/Tempsford, Cambourne and Cambridge.”
“3.5 The objectives of this commission are […] to:
3.5.1 develop an evidence-based engagement strategy for the programme that sets out the phases and methods of activity until delivery vehicles have been established at the chosen locations (~mid 2022);
3.5.2 clearly set out a route for the programme to meet any statutory requirements for consultation across the area and specifically each of the four potential development sites Bedford, St Neots/Tempsford, Cambourne and Cambridge; and
3.5.3 secure local buy-in for the strategy by working with local partners to build on established channels of engagement and recommending methods to engage hard to reach groups.”
[Statement of Requirements, 5 February 2021].
There are so many interesting elements to what is proposed:
⁃ The Government, through the Arc Growth Body, is going to prepare the framework itself and take it through to adoption. Who is going to lead the body and what will be its make-up?
⁃ It will have equivalent status to the NPPF in relation to plan making and decision making.
⁃ The Government has accepted that there will be stages of consultation and the sustainability appraisal (opening itself up to the rigours of the legal requirements in relation both to consultation and strategic environmental assessment) but it appears that there will be no independent examination of the draft framework.
⁃ Success is inevitably going to be dependent on securing a sufficient level of support or acceptance from local politicians and communities, meaning that it is important that the 2019 joint declaration holds firm, “entered into between the Government, local authorities across the Oxford to Cambridge Arc, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, the Arc’s four local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), and England’s Economic Heartland.”
⁃ We can expect to see up to four development corporations.
⁃ the document references the Government’s Planning For The Future proposals and I am sure we will see the process used in part as a showcase as to its proposed approach to plan making, for instance:
“3.12 First, we will use data and digital technology to support our policy-making. We intend to support development of an open source, digital platform for data and evidence to support collaboration between government, businesses, local councils and communities in decision-making. We will work with local partners to create an accessible digital platform for economic, planning and environmental data, and easy-to-use tools so that people – including the public and businesses – can engage meaningfully in the process.
3.13 Second, it means using digital engagement processes to make it easy for people to raise their views about proposals in the spatial framework, including on smartphones.
3.14 Third, it means the spatial framework will be visual and map-based, standardised, and based on the latest digital technology, so that it is easy to access and understand.”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse once released a terrific, if noisy album: Arc-Weld. Civil servants’ welding skills will certainly be needed to build the structure so far outlined, at the pace identified.
Simon Ricketts, 20 February 2021
Personal views, et cetera