Recovery planning and spatial frameworks in the Ox-Cam Arc

Yesterday our Planning Directors, Russell Gray and Richard Murdock, attended the Built Environment Networking webinar on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. Originally planned as a one day event, the BEN team have been working hard to offer great content via their webinars – with a great line up of speakers including Bev Hindle, Director of Oxfordshire County Council, Roz Bird, Commercial Director at Silverstone Park and Thrive Home’s Development Director, Jack Burnham.

Pre Covid-19, momentum was certainly building in the region, including the Government’s 2020 Budget pledge for the Arc and positive announcements regarding the creation of four development corporations and a Spatial Framework for the area (note that this is something Russell championed in an article this time last year!).

While progress has clearly been delayed by the pandemic (now looking at Autumn 2020 at the earliest), it is clear that the appetite remains both across the industry, the LEPS and in local Government to make the Oxford to Cambridge Arc region a success.

It was a positive session, and encouraging to hear from Bev Hindle about the planned Arc Recovery Strategy, involving the LEPs, Universities and local authorities across the area – all responding to the current challenges. With a consensus among speakers at the event that previous messages about the delivery of 1 million homes have been a distraction,  the focus is now on delivering sustainable development – including housing, economic and green growth.

There was also a call to focus more heavily on public engagement, especially with local communities across the Arc. For many local people, especially the younger generation, they don’t yet understand what development in Arc means for them – so there is a need for us all to get out there and champion our region and what it can achieve as a collective.

With connectivity (both movement and technology) a key issue, the Expressway was discussed – as well as the many reservations about it. Bev Hindle reflected on  how this must now be seen through a COVID lens. While there may be less pressures for new road connections with more people working from home for at least part of their working week, just seeing how the online retail world is responding to demand and the need for logistics and freight to ensure we keep the economy moving, may affect how the conversation around infrastructure develops.

Similarly COVID-19 was discussed in terms of the changing housing need in the region  – following lockdown, more people will inevitably wish to work from home and there will be more demand for larger garden spaces. How will this impact development plans and the housebuilders’ masterplans? Reflecting on this Richard Murdock said after the event:

“This could signal a move towards lower densities, allowing more green space in and around developments, creating better quality environments. But this will ultimately mean that Local Plans will need to allocate more sites to achieve the same level of development.”

As the debate closed, Russell asked the final question as to whether the delay in the Arc Spatial Framework being progressed will have a knock-on effect on local authorities who are currently looking to progress the next round of new development plans and their ability to respond to the Spatial vision.  The answer from Bev Hindle was a definite yes. It will be a challenge moving forward, with the Spatial Framework coming too late for some authorities (Bedford Borough potentially being one such authority given the deadline for it review Plan to be submitted is January 2023). He suggested the need for the Government to get out in front with early consultation on the key objectives of the Framework and articulate its vision.  But also this issue has to be seen in the context of the difficulties that local authorities are facing in general with progressing their local plans. 

It will be a missed opportunity if the next Local Plans do not have suitably integrated within them spatial strategies that seek to facilitate delivery of the opportunities that being located in Arc should bring. They key is going to be ensure strategies are flexible enough to respond to the evolving detail here.