Why the government's Oxbridge corridor timetable has prompted council concerns

The government's announcement of a search for sites in the Oxford to Cambridge growth arc could undermine the local plan process, some authorities in the area fear.

Oxford: minister's letter alarms authorities
Oxford: minister's letter alarms authorities

Last November, government advisor the National Infrastructure Commission published a report, Partnering for Prosperity, setting out a vision for development of the Oxford to Cambridge corridor. That vision included construction of an Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, an East West Rail link between the two cities, and one million new homes by 2050 to allow the region to reach its full economic potential. The proposals were subsequently backed by the government in the 2017 autumn budget. Local and central government should work together, the commission said, "through a robust and transparent process, to designate locations for new and expanded settlements by 2020".

A letter published by housing minister Kit Malthouse on 26 July this year sought to clarify how that process would work. The letter, sent to local authorities, universities and businesses in the region, reiterated the government’s support for the one million homes target and advised that detailed analysis will soon begin to identify locations for new settlements across the corridor. Councils were invited to "bring forward ambitious proposals" for housing growth, including new settlements, by 14 September. "I want to see swift action," the housing minister said.

But the letter prompted concerns among some councils in the area about a possible top-down approach by the government. Earlier this month, the leaders of South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse councils, Jane Murphy and Roger Cox, wrote back to Malthouse reminding the housing minister that they are currently working to adopt their respective local plans as well as looking to prepare the county-wide Oxfordshire joint spatial strategy. Murphy said in a statement that the council has "sought assurance that the government won’t impose new settlements in our district" and said the joint spatial plan "is a more appropriate method to explore housing growth" than Malthouse's request.

The two authorities raised their concerns despite attempts by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) to play down the implications of the Malthouse letter. Planning has learnt that, several days after the housing minister’s call for proposals was published, MHCLG deputy director of regeneration and infrastructure Rachel Fisher emailed local authorities to provide "further context" on the new settlement process and apologising for "any confusion" caused by the letter. The call for proposals by 14 September was "not a hard deadline" she said, adding that the department wanted to hear from councils keen to "begin a conversation". Fisher acknowledged that developing full proposals before the deadline would be "logistically impossible" and said MHCLG was instead looking for a "hand in the air" from interested parties.

Nevertheless, other councils in the area have raised similar concerns to the two Oxfordshire authorities that the local planning process is being undermined. Jason Longhurst, director of regeneration at Central Bedfordshire Council and chairman of the Central Corridor Group of local authorities in the area, said the call for new settlement proposals "seems slightly out of sync with wanting to have a plan-led approach". Opening up a separate process to identify sites appears to presume that "somewhere out there someone has forgotten to mention that there is a significant growth opportunity," he said. Councils are willing to plan for growth, said Longhurst, as soon as they receive clarity from the government over the infrastructure to be provided. "We’re still waiting for a commitment to the expressway and the East-West rail," he said. "You commit to that and tell us the route; we’ll tell you the potential added value that will bring."

The route of the new expressway was due to be announced this summer by Highways England but the government agency is now aiming to confirm details later in the year. Both Murphy and

Cox in their letters said any new settlement proposals would need to be informed by the details of that decision and expressed surprise at the government's call for expressions of interest before the preferred road corridor was known.

Rob Hopwood, planning partner at consultancy Bidwells and their lead on the Oxford-Cambridge arc, said: "How can local authorities identify their local plan allocations then suddenly at the end of this year, there might be a corridor announcement? If that's different to what their local plans are proposing, they would need to change them."

Another uncertainty raised by Murphy and Cox in their letters was whether the one million new homes by 2050 "includes the existing ambitious planned housing growth in the area". A statement from MHCLG to Planning confirmed that the target includes those homes that are "already planned".

Martin Tugwell, programme director at England’s Economic Heartland, a partnership between councils and local enterprise partnerships in the area, said the ministerial letter was looking beyond current local plan timescales. He said: "There’s clearly a pressure on local authorities to move forward with their local plans and it’s important those local plans get delivered as quickly as possible. The Kit Malthouse letter is looking towards the longer term. The most appropriate way forward for meeting future growth pressures is still something to be debated by partners across the corridor. It might be that new settlements are the way forward but there may also be alternative ways."

However, central government needed to take a lead on planning for the area, Tugwell added. England’s Economic Heartland has called for a National Policy Statement setting out a strategic plan for the area. "Whilst we share the ambition to recognise the economic potential of the corridor, this requires a long-term commitment from the government," Tugwell said.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said the call for new settlement proposals represents a step too far, too soon. It believes the case has still not been made for the level of growth proposed by the National Infrastructure Commission and backed by ministers. Paul Miner, head of strategic plans and devolution at CPRE, says: "We don’t really get the sense at the moment that the government has looked seriously at the environmental implications of building one million new houses and a major new road."

Meanwhile, the many different parties involved in the region’s development and the uncertainty over the timing of both the expressway announcement and the call for new settlements, has led some to wonder who is in charge. Last December, the MHCLG announced that Iain Stewart, the MP for Milton Keynes South, would become the new "champion for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor" though he would not have any decision-making powers. In February, the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Corridor All-Party Parliamentary Group, which Stewart chairs, was launched. However, Stewart has since called for a minister or cabinet member to lead on plans for the growth arc. 

Hopwood said: "Of the three or four big issues, leadership keeps coming up. At the top level, we’re not getting anybody." MHCLG, the Department for Transport, and the Treasury all have a stake in the process, said Hopwood, but it’s not clear who is leading the project. "We need someone to take control."

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