Central in location but can Bedfordshire capitalise on the OxCam Arc – a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity?

Bedford OxCamArc

Last month saw the start of examinations on the Local Plans of two of the authorities located in the centre of the planned Oxford – Milton Keynes – Cambridge Arc.

Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) and Bedford Borough Council (BBC) sit in the ‘Central Area’ of the Growth Corridor – right at the heart of what is already hailed as one of the most innovative and economically successful areas of the UK. But the question is, do their Local Plans acknowledge this great opportunity and are they ready to capitalise on the huge investment in new infrastructure right on our doorstep?

The Arc, cited by Treasury Minister Robert Jenrick MP as a ‘national priority’ and ‘one of the world’s greatest economic opportunities’, is poised for increased public and private investment of a scale never seen before. Supported by infrastructure including the £110m transformation of London Luton Airport,  East West Rail and the Oxford – Cambridge Expressway, it should be the most exciting time the region has ever experienced. 

But where is CBC and BBC in all of this talk of investment and opportunity? 

The Inspectors undertaking the examinations posed questions at the hearing sessions on the extent to which the submitted Local Plans take account of the Arc. CBC and BBC are located in highly coveted positions in the Growth Corridor, central between Oxford and Cambridge and on key road and rail corridors linking the Arc to London, meaning they should be poised to take advantage of the opportunities for investment and new infrastructure this will bring. However, it is evident from the responses provided by the Councils that these current Plans do little more than set the scene for the Arc, with the real decisions being left for future Plan reviews.   

Russell Gray, Planning Director at Woods Hardwick attended the recent examinations on behalf of various clients.  He explained that both Local Plans were Submitted before the cut off date of 24th January 2019, meaning under the transitional arrangements they are being assessed against the 2012 version of the NPPF and are not required to deliver the housing target under the Standard Housing Method – a new measure introduced by the Government in response to the ‘housing crisis’, which sets targets for housing in local authority areas based on affordability indices, with uplifted requirements in areas where affordability issues are most pronounced.  Nor do the Local Plans propose any uplift in housing provision to take account of the location of these two Councils at the centre of the Arc.  

Interestingly, both have included supporting text in their submitted Plans proposing almost immediate commencement of early reviews to plan for delivery of their housing requirements under the Standard Method and to respond to the opportunities presented by the Oxford – Cambridge Arc. Representatives at the examinations, ourselves included, quite rightly argued that this commitment to a review needs to be set within a policy that confirms the timetable for both commencement and submission of the Plan and also clarifies the scope of the review; the certainty this type of policy would provide is imperative given the propensity for Local Plan timetables to slip. This would help ensure the two authorities capitalise on the exciting opportunities associated with the OxCam Arc….not just positive noises, but an actual plan to leverage investment in infrastructure and deliver growth for the future. Come on Bedfordshire, now is our time!

The Inspectors considering both Plans will reach their verdicts in the coming weeks, including on the need for and form of the commitment to an early review to respond to the OxCam Arc and the Standard Method for calculating housing need. 

Take heed from nearby MK

The examinations in CBC and BBC follow those for Plan:MK and the Vale of Aylesbury Plan (AVDC) last year. While AVDC is working on modifications to their Plan to overcome concerns raised by the Inspector with regards to housing provision, Plan:MK was adopted in March this year – already with a commitment to submit a review plan by 2022. Promising a minimum 26,500 new homes, it is essentially an interim plan to bridge the gap between the ongoing need for new homes and the transformational level of growth needed to fulfil the long term aspirations for Milton Keynes and the surrounding area as part of the Arc. Here, while not imminent, there is at least a long term vision embracing their central position in the Arc. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report, ‘Partnering for Prosperity’: A new deal for the Cambridge- Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc’ (November 2017), sets out recommendations for the wider growth corridor, which MK Council already knows they must consider in the future development strategy for the Plan’s review – it simply makes sense. 

But, as the NIC continues to remind us all, success cannot be taken for granted, and the local authorities starting their examinations in Bedfordshire must stand up and take notice of this fact.  Both have signed the Joint Declaration between the Government and local partners which recognises the significant economic strength and opportunity the Arc provides, along with the challenges if this potential is to be realised.    

Normally the adoption of new development plans would see a pause in the Plan making process while the new strategies are implemented, but in MK and in all likelihood, in Bedford Borough and Central Bedfordshire too, given these commitments to early reviews, work will begin immediately on the next round of Plans – both to get up to speed with the Standard Housing Method, but perhaps more importantly, to start delivering the vision for increased development in our region. In Aylesbury Vale the position is less clear given the pending local government reorganisation in Buckinghamshire and this will ultimately be a decision for the new unitary authority.

Is a Joint Spatial Plan the answer?

The reviews in Milton Keynes, BBC and CBC are currently likely to be in the form of separate Local Plans with aligned plan periods.  However, given the wider economic implications and the need to Plan for cross-boundary infrastructure, the preparation of a single Joint Spatial Plan for the central area in a similar manner to that being prepared by the Oxfordshire Authorities, or a Strategic Spatial Framework such as that being drawn up for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, could be the way forward. Given the alignment of the plan periods, the cross-boundary issues that need to be tackled and the extent of growth to be delivered, this would be a sensible approach and has been encouraged by both the NIC and the Government. 

Either way, this will all mean further opportunities for developers and landowners to promote sites in the area imminently. As Russell explained, ‘with the planned routes of EWR and the expressway beginning to take shape, now is the time to put in place the blue print for growth in the central area over the short, medium and long term. With the level of investment and opportunity literally on our doorstep, CBC and BBC need to consider how they can make the most of this growth. And we are advising our clients on a variety of sites across the region in anticipation.’ 

So it seems, with an early review of the Local Plans and a potential Joint Plan with surrounding authorities, the huge rewards to be reaped in the central area of the Arc are ours for the taking – our Local Authorities ultimately need to consider how they want to be positioned – in the centre or watching from the wings!