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.