How the Tory pledge to review the Oxbridge Expressway will affect the road corridor's development

A promise by the transport secretary during the general election campaign to review a proposed new expressway between Oxford and Cambridge has prompted concerns about the government's commitment to housing growth in the area and looks set to further delay planning work based on the proposal.

Oxford: transport secretary moots review of expressway plan (pic: Matt Buck, Flickr)
Oxford: transport secretary moots review of expressway plan (pic: Matt Buck, Flickr)

Last month, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced that plans for an expressway linking Oxford and Cambridge would be put under review if the Conservatives are re-elected. The £4 billion road project is a cornerstone of the government’s plans for a so-called "growth arc" of development between the historic university cities creating up to one million homes. Shapps said the review, announced on the election campaign trail in Oxfordshire, was prompted by concerns the project may not "provide the benefits that we first thought" and that costs might rise due to flooding mitigation.

The expressway is one of two major infrastructure projects designed to underpin the Oxford-Cambridge arc, alongside a proposed East-West rail link between the two cities. The expressway plan, prepared by government agency Highways England, envisages upgrades to existing trunk roads in much of the arc, though a wholly new road would need to be built between Oxford and Milton Keynes.

Government advisory body the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in a 2017 report on the growth corridor concluded that both the rail and road schemes "must be built as quickly as possible to unlock land for new homes" in order to deliver the "transformational" level of growth envisaged. The report was subsequently backed by the government in the October 2018, which also said it would commit £3.5 billion to the project.

Last Autumn, Highways England announced a preferred "corridor" for the road. The "Route B" option starts from the M1-A421 junction in Bedfordshire, runs south of Milton Keynes, across north Buckinghamshire and into Oxfordshire, with options to run east or west of Oxford. However, it is yet to reveal a specific route, leaving open questions such as whether the road runs to the north or south of Oxford, and whether it cuts across the south of Buckinghamshire via Aylesbury, or across the north from Bicester.

In the last few months, a number of planning authorities, including Aylesbury Vale, Buckinghamshire, Oxford and Oxfordshire County Council have all announced their opposition to the plan, a move partly prompted by climate change concerns, according to commentators. Rob Hopwood, planning partner at consultancy Bidwells, said: "With the climate strikes taking place, there seems to be a general feeling that building roads doesn’t fit with what’s happening in the wider world." In the general election, local Liberal Democrat candidates have made clear their opposition to the road, and many view Shapps’ review announcement as politically motivated.

Shapps said a Conservative government "will not allow the scheme to proceed if there is not a strong case that it will boost jobs, prosperity and has local support". With many authorities opposing the scheme, "local support" will be hard to demonstrate. Tory MP for Henley John Howell, who helped develop many of the ideas behind the 2011 Localism Act, said in a statement that the review "is expected to mark the end" of the expressway project. However, Shapps said the party remained committed to the "important strategic corridor" linking Oxford and Cambridge, supported by the delivery of "the new East-West Rail link, local roads and new cycling schemes".

In truth, the impact of cancelling the scheme is unclear as the number of new homes the scheme could "unlock" has never been quantified. Highways England’s strategic business case for the road says failure to build it will "severely curtail housing growth" along the arc but doesn’t quote a number.

The NIC’s 2017 report said both the expressway and the rail link were needed to produce the doubling in the rate of home construction required to deliver one million homes by 2050, but didn’t say what the impact of building only one of these would be. Bidwells’ Hopwood said that, of the two, East-West Rail was seen as the more important. "I’m not sure the expressway is a deal-breaker," he added. Jason Longhurst, director of regeneration at Central Bedfordshire Council, said: "The challenge of the expressway is in understanding what the direct benefit is in delivering sustainable growth - at the moment it’s unclear."

However, the NIC report did make explicit that its proposal for a major new town housing hundreds of thousands of people between Bletchley and Milton Keynes relied upon "the combination of East West Rail and the expressway". Lyndon Gill, a director in consultancy Barton Willmore's Cambridge office, said: "In practice, this review brings in to question the delivery of that settlement, which was as much as ten per cent of the one million homes proposed."

The lack of a defined route means that no local plan allocations reliant on the expressway scheme have been proposed, say commentators. However, Oxford City Council leader Susan Brown said work on Oxfordshire’s Joint Statutory Spatial Plan had actually been "paused" because of the delay in announcing a route. She added: "It's pretty difficult to plan for anything if you know there's a whacking great trunk road but we don't know where it's going to go."

"Things haven't moved rapidly in the planning system as a lot of authorities are waiting for announcements on the route which unfortunately haven't happened," said Hopwood. Similarly, Martin Curtis, associate director at public affairs firm Curtin & Co, similarly said developers were "waiting for announcements to be made" on the route, and any review would "push back" progress on the arc.

Hence, the wider ramifications for the arc are unclear. Those working in the area remain confident of the government’s commitment to the idea of the growth corridor, but some suspect that its priority may be downgraded. Paul Miner, strategic planning lead at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which opposes both the expressway and the plan for one million, said: "It's likely that after the election, government support will be re-oriented towards the Midlands and the North."

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