The government is appointing a “specialist team” in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to “work with communities and local partners to develop a robust, evidence-based spatial framework” for what’s called the ‘Oxford–Cambridge Arc’.
The scale envisaged for this growth ‘opportunity’ is colossal: up to 1.1 million new jobs and a million new homes by 2050. It implies the population in the Arc will increase by over 50%, compared with about 11% for the UK as a whole.
It means building – on mostly arable land – new towns and large extensions to existing towns and villages; reservoirs and sewage treatment plants; landfills and waste recycling centres; new and widened roads, railways, busways, tramways and airport runways. Supposedly the framework will set out how to do all of this whilst protecting and enhancing the environment.
The transport challenge will not be solved by more remote-working and virtual meetings. Commuting and business trips account for only 28% of distance travelled. People will still travel to meet friends and family, attend school, go to places for shopping, leisure, culture, holidays, and so on.
Why concentrate all this growth in the ‘Arc’? Because jobs here contribute more to GDP than anywhere in the country outside of London, and nobody has figured out how to make jobs in, say, the North East or Wales similarly productive. Higher GDP generates more tax revenues to fund the increasingly costly needs of the population for medical and social care, pensions, education, infrastructure renewal, as well as decarbonising energy and land use, and reversing ecological decline.
Even if you accept this argument (and there are coherent alternatives ), local champions of the growth project – landowners and businesses – are motivated by money, not philanthropy. They treat the lobbying of politicians as an investment, much like advertising, with a high potential pay-off. By contrast, volunteer-led community and environmental groups have minimal resources to develop alternative proposals, and lobby remote bodies like England’s Economic Heartland.
At a recent webinar about the Arc, attendees were asked to choose their top priority: “Jobs and growth” came first (34%); “Environment” came last (17%). This does not bode well.
-  See ONS Estimates of the population in 2019 and Population projections
-  Average number of trips (trip rates) and distance travelled by purpose and main mode: England (NTS0409)
-  See, for instance, The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 24 February 2021.