In 2018, the Government was adamant: building an expressway between Oxford and Cambridge was vital to “unlock” growth in the region.

Developers, landowners and politicians told us that the expressway was inevitable and would happen whether local people wanted it or not. Rejecting this argument, BEAG campaigned hard against the scheme on environmental, democratic and economic grounds. We never gave up.

In March 2021, the Government announced that the deeply unpopular expressway was cancelled. The Transport Secretary (Grant Shapps) is now looking at alternative ways to “improve” transport in the region. BEAG and others are concerned that the Government is simply attempting to get an expressway by stealth.

Why? Because the Government is still determined to “unleash” growth in the region – previously known as the “growth corridor”, now referred to widely as the “Ox-Cam Arc”. The vision is for major infrastructure and housing developments over an area covering Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire (around 4,500 square miles).

We believe that centrally driven, rapid economic growth in one of the most populated and wealthiest areas of the country – destroying farmland, woodland, villages and heritage in the process – would be fundamentally wrong. Our website explains why.

The “rationale”

In 2018, we were told that to “unlock“ economic growth in the South East, and to to deliver one million new houses, we had to have an expressway between Oxford and Cambridge. Following public outrage, the expressway was deemed no longer vital to deliver growth in the region and was scrapped. Yet the concept of a Growth Arc between Oxford and Cambridge has been relentlessly pursued by the Government. The rationale now is simply that, while this area of the South East already bears significant economic fruit, it could yield much, much more – and alternatives to the Expressway are being scrutinised to help make this happen.

On the 18th February 2021, the Government released a press statement outlining its ambitions to transform the area into an economic “powerhouse”, which you can read here.

The Arc, the Government urges, will require a new “spacial framework” to ensure that businesses, industry and house-builders have the space and infrastructure they need in the area to grow. Heralding what looks like a new planning authoritarianism, local planning authorities within the Arc will be “supported” in allocating suitable high-growth zones, though there appears to be little choice about opting out.

Meanwhile, it is is keen to persuade us that – in a way never before seen! – super-charged economic growth within the Arc will be matched by environmental protections and enhancements. Given the scale of the Arc and the concrete and tarmac that will be poured over farmland, heritage and wildlife, how could this be possible?

It really isn’t clear. The Government’s enthusiasm for the Arc considerably outweighs the detail on mitigation. There is also scant detail of what the Arc will actually involve in terms of infrastructure development, or house-building, though there have been frequent mentions of 1 million houses.

Yet revised projections for household growth provided by the Office for National Statistics show that housing demand will be 17% lower in the SE and in the East of England. (Planning, 28 September 2018, p8).

Serious questions are now being asked, in particular, about the need to “build, build, build”, more houses. For far too long there has been a widely held assumption – across the political spectrum – that the housing crisis is one of shortage. But as Nick Bano (a barrister who specialises in housing and homelessness cases) has recently argued:

Not only is the analytical evidence stacked against the ‘build more housing’ thinking, but it is actually difficult to find factual evidence in favour of its basic arguments. … Why build more housing when there is already a surplus equal to five times the homeless population?

He adds, “the call to build more housing is not a call that serves our interests (let alone the interests of the environment).

The full article is here.

Apart from this, why concentrate further growth in the South East? We already have the densest population in the UK, huge demand on land, very high levels of congestion and worrying stresses on our water supply.

In terms of wealth distribution, the UK is the most unequal of the ten Northern European countries, with six out of ten of the poorest regions of Northern Europe being in the UK. A recent and damning UN report on UK poverty and human rights states that 14 million people – one fifth of the country’s population – live in poverty.

In an apparent attempt to deal with the fact that stimulating white hot growth in five counties that have high levels of prosperity is not exactly fair, there is a reference to “levelling up” areas of inequality within the Arc itself. This hardly amounts to rebalancing the UK economy, something that the Government has previously said is a priority.

Perhaps the idea is that, if growth is encouraged in the South East, the tax base will grow and the money gained from this could be used to invest elsewhere – at some point. But waiting potentially decades for some possible return is not sensible. The deeply worrying structural problems in our society ought to be tackled now.

Rather than do this, the Government seems hell-bent on perpetuating an affluent, environmentally damaged and overcrowded South-East that sucks in talent and investment, while the rest of the country is left to fill Amazon orders and clean second homes. High Speed Two was intended to rebalance the UK economy. The Oxford-Cambridge Arc appears to be geared to do the opposite.


Climate Matters

Given that the UK Government is supposed to be committed to reducing the UK’s carbon footprint, it is perverse that it is furthering a vast infrastructure project like the Ox-Cam Arc.

In June 2019, the 2008 Climate Change Act was amended to commit the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Constructing a vast new conurbation over 4500 square miles only adds to the scale of the challenge, making it hugely difficult to meet the new requirements of the Act.

In October 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that we have just 12 years to avert climate catastrophe (read about it here). The IPCC’s team of scientists warn than action must be taken right now to reduce the risk of extreme heat, floods, climate-related poverty for millions of people and massive loss of biodiversity.

The Government is well aware of this report, yet is apparently still committed to “unleashing” economic growth in the South East, laughably referred to as “sustainable”. The construction of just one two-bedroomed house emits around 80 tonnes of CO2. If the Government’s housing ambitions for the area are realised – let alone its aspirations for technology, industrial, business and shopping complexes, tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 would be emitted.

So, how much CO2 will be emitted by the development of the Ox-Cam Arc overall? Has the Government considered the Arc in the context of the cumulative impacts of all UK developments? Has the Government considered the environmental impacts of the electric vehicles on which it pins its hopes? Will offset land and really act as a sufficient carbon sink, given the scale of what is proposed? Given the large-scale loss of farmland beneath the Arc, can we ensure Uk food security? Is the Ox-Cam Arc the right thing to be doing in the face of Covid-19, and the ever-present threat of new pandemics? There is no indication that the Government has thought in depth about any of this. The assumption is that we can build ourselves out of catastrophe:

The Arc’s success is key to the UK’s national prosperity, international competitiveness, and ability to meet the challenges and opportunities we will face as a country over the next century, including climate change and supporting nature recovery, technological change, fighting COVID-19 and preventing future pandemics.

Horrific scenes of floods in Germany and China recently, of rampaging fires in Australia, the US, and Canada, and huge problems with flooding here in the UK show us that the Government should be taking the climate emergency seriously, rather than pleasing the development lobbyists.

Constructing new industrial and business complexes and a million new houses across the Ox-Cam Arc is the exact opposite of the actions that should be taken.

Backing uncertain mitigations, the Government is operating on a wing and a prayer. Put simply, the plans are reckless.

Impacts on Wildlife

The Ox-CamArc will devastate huge tracts of wildlife-supporting countryside across Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire.

Planners generally seek to avoid designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), which are protected in law. The upshot is that supposedly “ordinary” countryside is simply regarded as a blank canvas on which to stick development. Yet, many areas that aren’t designated SSSIs possess an abundance of wildlife that far exceeds those designations.

As the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) put it in 2018: Wildlife doesn’t do postcodes…” (From BBOWT’s website – read the full article here).

In this video, BBOWT explained that the Ox-Cam Arc “presents unprecedented risks to the local environment and wildlife”. When it comes to development, the Trust urged, “it’s inevitably humans that succeed and the wildlife that loses out”.

BBOWT fought the Government’s plans for the Expressway (on the grounds that there had been no Strategic Environment Assessment) but eventually lost its case in court. The Trust’s current view of the proposed Ox-Cam Arc is still broadly negative. However, BBOWT has more recently said that the Arc presents an opportunity to enhance nature. Along with the RSPB and the Woodland Trust, BBOWT now supports the principles published in the document Nature’s Arc.

The Government also claims that the Spatial Framework for the Arc is “a unique opportunity to preserve and enhance a green Arc and support nature recovery” and to “improve access to nature and green space across the area”. A Paradise on Earth!

So how will the Arc, 4,500 square miles of urban sprawl, deliver on these wild promises? The answer will be the new biodiversity net-gain magic formula, as set out in the Government’s Environment Bill. Using the a biodiversity net-gain metric – a spreadsheet tool – developers will have to demonstrate that they can achieve a 10% increase in biodiversity – either on site or on land elsewhere – before their development schemes are given the go ahead.

Unfortunately for nature, the biodiversity net gain concept is not proven. In addition, the net gain tool doesn’t just rely on quantitative inputs. It also relies on qualitative judgements by ecologists selected by developers, which introduces a worrying level of subjectivity that leaves the system vulnerable to being gamed where costs are an issue. Another blindingly obvious problem is that land given over to concrete and tarmac will become unavailable to nature, while land allocated as net-gain sites will inevitable diminish. The result will be that less and less space will be expected to do more and more in terms of net gain. If all this were not bad enough, net-gain sites could take thirty years or more to mature. What happens to the displaced nature in the meantime? Who will maintain the sites over three decades? Who will hold developers flouting the rules to account? None of this is clear.

Meanwhile, like the world over, the UK is experiencing frightening losses of biodiversity. Actually, is it correct to say that we’re experiencing “losses” ? Chris Packham doesn’t think so:

(From A People’s Manifesto)

…to our shame, we are careless with our language. We say that ‘we’ve lost 97% of our flower rich meadows since the 1930s’ or that ‘we’ve lost 86% of the Corn Bunting population.’ We speak of ‘a loss of 97% of our Hedgehogs.’ Loss, lost… as if this habitat and these species have mysteriously disappeared into the ether, as if they’ve accidentally vanished. But they haven’t – they’ve been destroyed.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently published its Living Planet Report report. It makes uncomfortable reading.  Destruction of mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles averaged 60% between 1970 and 2014, according to the report. And the cause? An “explosion” of consumerism over that period. The WWF is calling for urgent intergovernmental action to stop a mass extinction of biodiversity.

If anyone is wondering why the mass extinction of biodiversity matters, the UK Government can explain:

(From UK Biodiversity Indicators)

…biodiversity matters because it supports the vital benefits we get from the natural environment. It contributes to our economy, our health and wellbeing, and it enriches our lives.

BEAG agrees. So, instead of pushing the argument that we can enhance nature and destroy it too, instead of positing developers as the saviours of nature, and instead of coldly and clinically treating living things as exchangeable natural capital units, let’s protect our life-support system by doing no harm to it in the first place.

Democratic Deficit

Localism be damned

From the outset, visions for a “growth Arc” between Oxford and Cambridge has been a top-down and centrally driven ambition for rapid growth in the South East, spelling the end of localism.

For this reason, Buckinghamshire Council exited the Arc last year, expressing concerns about the way the scheme had been developed and the preoccupation with housing growth. Responding to a question from Councillor Robin Stuchbury on March 30 2021, Martin Tett, the council leader, said that the approach to planning in Bucks should provide both pace and a local democratic mandate.

BEAG agrees. The Recovery Proposition produced by the Council as an alternative to the government’s and developers’ plans for vast profit-making schemes suggests ‘front loading’ housing delivery to achieve existing (already high) targets for house building. (To read the full question and answer click here.)

However, we do not know how meaningful Buckingham Council’s resistance can really be. The Government’s “build, build, build” agenda requires sweeping planning reforms to “streamline” the planning process and to allocate zones for industry and business, as well as housing. Buckingham Council has been selected as one of the local planning authorities to test the plans for new planning zones.

A new grassroots campaign

Fed up with the lack of democracy in the planning process, and anxious about environmental impacts of a system skewed in favour of developers, a new grassroots campaign began in March 2021. The initial aim of the campaign was to produce a map showing the scale of the threat to the UK countryside. The response from consumer campaigns was staggering. Over 400 campaigns have been added to the map and the grassroots campaign has now become the Community Planning Alliance and has achieved excellent press coverage (example here). The objectives of the CPA are to provide support for those fighting planning battles, and to seek influence with decision and policy makers. To view the map, click here. To add your campaign, click here. Follow the CPA on Twitter and Facebook.

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About BEAG

The Buckinghamshire Environment Action Group (BEAG) was formed by local residents in September 2018 in opposition to the Ox-Cam Expressway and its associated “growth corridor” (now known as the “Ox-Cam Arc”).

Following pressure from local communities, the Government announced in March 2021 that Expressway – once deemed to be vital to “unlock” growth in the region – was cancelled. Nevertheless, the Government is pressing on with plans for the OxCam Arc – industrial, business and housing zones stretching across five counties.

BEAG objects to the top-down planning regime that the Government wishes to impose on the region. If it goes ahead, the scheme will cause massive and permanent harm to the natural and historic environment.

Given that we are in a climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, we feel that plans for rapid growth in the area are reckless and wrong. So, our campaign continues under a new name. Reflecting our concerns about the local and wider environment, we are now the Buckinghamshire Environment Action Group.

BEAG is a member of the CommunityPlanningAlliance.

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