What the preferred East-West rail route means for Oxbridge housing plans

The government's announcement of a preferred route for part of a proposed rail link in the Oxford-Cambridge growth corridor should help local authorities in the area to deliver more homes and meet their housing requirements, say commentators.

Cambridge (pic: Douglas Pfeiffer Car)
Cambridge (pic: Douglas Pfeiffer Car)

Last week, the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) jointly announced its preferred route for the central section of the proposed East-West Rail line between Oxford and Cambridge. Their favoured "route E" for the section between Cambridge and Bedford would run from south Cambridge via Cambourne and south of St Neots (see map above). From Bedford, it would link up with the existing western end of the route, towards Milton Keynes and Oxford. In their joint announcement, ministers emphasised the potential of the route to boost housing growth in what the government calls the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, as well as improve transport connections.

The corridor for the route has been identified by the DfT's East West Rail Company, which is driving the project. Martin Tugwell, programme director of England’s Economic Heartland, a coalition of politicians and businesses in the arc, notes that the corridor is wide and the company now needs to develop a detailed route that has widespread local support - something the government has promised it will do. The Dft and MHCLG statement said the government still has to make a "final decision on whether to take this project forward" and would then make an application for a development consent order (DCO) to the Planning Inspectorate. "With construction possibly starting in 2025, completion could be within about five years [of that]," suggested Tugwell.

The preferred route is not the most direct and was the most expensive of the five options but it maximises the opportunities to support new housing development as well as serve existing communities, according to commentators. An estimate published last year alongside the five options, suggested "route E" would cost £3.4 billion, almost 30 per cent more than the next most expensive option (£2.6 billion). "Rather than providing a fast strategic route between Oxford and Cambridge, this route could support new settlements around Bedford and St Neots", said Rob Hopwood, a Cambridge-based planning partner at consultancy Bidwells.

Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council, said the route could also enable the expansion of the new settlement at Cambourne - where a new station has been earmarked - and denser development on the south and west of Cambridge. He pointed out that the government set a target of one million additional homes across the arc by 2050. "At this end of the arc, the homes will come from densification around Cambridge and new settlements in Bedfordshire," he says.

The rail line has actually been talked about for the last 25 years, according to Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers Society, which represents public sector planners, but last week's announcement has removed much uncertainty about it. She said some local authorities in the central part of the arc have problems identifying enough accessible sites to achieve their housebuilding targets as calculated by the government's standard method of assessing housing need. "Bedford Council has just adopted its local plan, but the inspector has instructed it to complete a review within three years," she said. "The route going north of Bedford should enable the council to identify further housing sites that side of the town," she says.

Rob Smith, director of planning consultancy Hyas, said Bedford Council had considered four garden villages to the north of the town and suggested that the proposed rail link route could see the plans revived. Smith also highlighted the potential for large-scale development in Central Bedfordshire district, to the south of St Neots where a new station is proposed. "Around 7,000 homes are being considered at nearby Tempsford which could help Central Bedfordshire Council achieve its housebuilding target," said Smith.

Steve Kosky, director of consultancy Turley’s Cambridge office, said Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council have just begun preparing a joint Greater Cambridgeshire plan. The councils estimate that they need to identify sites for an additional 30,000 homes by 2040 to meet their housing need as calculated by the standard method. "The link could help deliver some of them, particularly on the west side of the city," he said, adding that the university colleges, who own much of the land, will be pressing for a station in the area.

In a statement, Bedford Council said the next issue to be settled is the location of the new stations on the route, "as these will undoubtedly need to be attractive for growth to be located" [there].

"The announcement implies new stations at Tempsford and Cambourne, and there may be others being considered in between," said Hopwood. "The National Planning Policy Framework and government policy intentions are moving towards guidance which requires higher density housing around railway stations." This will "provide an opportunity for the housebuilding and commercial property sectors to promote and deliver sustainable development at scale", he said. But he pointed out that most of the preferred corridor east of Cambourne is in the Cambridge green belt, which means "important decisions to be made on where and at what scale development should take place".

Paul Jenkins, trustee of CPRE Bedfordshire, said "several more" new stations may be neeed to serve the area's planned development sites effectively. "Otherwise, there's a danger that the schemes will generate a lot of car use, particularly through some quiet rural villages," he warned. In locating the stations, the rail company will want to ensure that the new East West rail link has effective interchanges with the existing mainline trains running north-south through the arc, said Heather Pugh, a partner at planning consultancy David Lock Associates. "There needs to be some clarity about the role of the new link, whether it’s a strategic route or a local service," she argued.

Gareth Wilson, partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, said "a multi-modal strategy" was needed alongside East West Rail to serve more of the area's emerging development sites. He cited plans being driven by Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayor James Palmer for CAM metro, a light rail network. "With its 24 stops across the major development areas in and around Cambridge, this scheme would complement the East West rail link," said Wilson.

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