CaMkOx still on track?

The Budget announcement on Monday saw the government continue to demonstrate its commitment to investment towards the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc or the CaMkOx Arc as it has been coined. The Budget continues to reiterate the area between Oxford and Cambridge as a growth corridor and of vital economic importance for the near future.

The new document went to great lengths to outline why the Oxford-Cambridge Arc is so special, likening it to other successful regional economies around the world.

The actions that have already been taken to ‘drive forward delivery’ of the CaMkOx Arc over the past 12 months were presented, including various funding commitments for proposed transport infrastructure, such as:

  • £3.5 billion on the Expressway
  • £1 billion for the western section of the rail line
  • £74 million to Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority as part of the Transforming Cities Fund
  • £5 million to develop proposals for Cambridge South Station

The headline figure of these was £21 million development funding to the East-West Rail company to support the development of a business case for the central rail section of the CaMkOx Arc, known to be the Varsity Line. This funding will add to the £74 million already available, meaning funding is now secured up to 2022-23. Given the project will take much longer than this, it could be seen as a lack of foresight from the government, maybe even hedging their bets on the availability of the Arc. 

However, it is not just transport infrastructure which makes up the Arc, new housing forms the other key plank of the strategy. The overall goal is to deliver 1 million new homes in the corridor by 2050, mainly through the development of up to five new towns or villages. The new funding secured will go towards exploring routes that best support the government’s housing ambitions in the region.

The lack of specificity on where these sites will be remains absent and given the symbiotic nature between the delivery of transport infrastructure and housing, it runs the risk of a chicken and egg situation that never materialises. In other words, if the sites for housing are not specified, the route of the rail line will never be confirmed. 

While garden towns and villages are often considered a slightly better option for development over the day to day bolt-on development by residents, proposals for new garden communities send local residents into a tailspin when it’s located nearby. By addressing the prospect, benefits and necessity of new settlements early on with residents has to be a key stage in communicating the CaMkOx Arc. The prospect of the new settlements being moved forward at any real pace is unlikely, so the timescale for 2050 doesn’t in any way seem like an overestimate. 

Industry leaders will remain sceptical of the delivery of the Arc from what they’ve heard in the recent Budget. Whilst the rail link was mentioned, there fails to be a huge amount of new news. Leaders will be pleased that proposals have been reaffirmed, but the lack of specificity and movement since the last Budget will cause concern. The government needs to be bold with their actions, otherwise the proposals risk never getting off the ground. 

Mayor James Palmer, of the Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority, welcomed the increased investment announcement in the Budget, saying “our roads, rail and other infrastructure cannot keep up with our growing economy, so every pound of investment will be essential in ensuring that growth continues”. He has built his position on his commitment to implement better transport to the region, as such, he will be an ever-obliging cheerleader for proposals as his legacy depends upon their delivery.  

If the Arc is to become a reality, the Government must commit whole-heartedly and urgently to progressing plans soon. The likelihood of development getting under way to the current time scales is unlikely. There still appear to be major road blocks to progress which the Government have failed to address in this Budget. The fact that the additional funding is still being fed into supporting the development for a business case for the Varsity line speaks volumes. 

Referring to the 1 million new homes earmarked for the Arc, the engagement of the local communities will be a pivotal stage of development. The benefits of the Arc need to be clearly demonstrated and communicated otherwise plans will be kicked into the long grass in the face of public opposition as has been seen with various other large-scale infrastructure projects in recent years. The timescales of 2050 completion offer an opportunity to implement housing proposals into the discourse of young people rather than the traditionally consulted groups. Being able to get these groups on side early with garden settlements will ease the progression of the Arc in the coming years. 

Despite the benefits the CaMkOx Arc would inevitably bring to the region, if the government doesn’t fully acknowledge and address the issues at hand now, the problems which the Arc is designed to solve will come back to haunt the government and region sooner rather than later.

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