The Arc is essential to the future prosperity of the UK. The stretch of the country between Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford offers huge potential to build the infrastructure that will cement the UK’s position as a world leader in science, technology and related fields.
However, in 2016 a report was prepared by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) that started with the frightening statement that ‘without swift and determined action to overcome the area’s housing crisis’ the most productive and innovative places within the Arc would ‘fall behind its international competitors and fail to attract and retain talent and skills it needs’. In short, the idea of the UK’s own Silicon Valley would be a failure.
Following personnel changes within the NIC, the future of the Arc looked uncertain, particularly if there were any delays to the proposed East West Rail and Expressway schemes. But now we have been offered a glimmer of hope. The Autumn Budget contained a raft of funding that could provide the boost the Arc needs. With Brexit just around the corner, it will be crucial that the implementation of this funding is well placed.
On the face of it, we could get excited about the funding. £140 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund is set to head to the Arc over the next 18 months. The Transforming Cities fund allocated £21 million for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. £20 million will go towards developing a strategic business case for the East West Rail. The Government’s aim to build 1 million new homes in the Arc by 2050 should maximise sustainable growth.
Many questions remain, however. House prices have risen dramatically due to shortfall, particularly in Oxford and Cambridge – can this be stemmed quickly enough to keep people in the area? Though meetings have been held to discuss the private funding of the East West Rail scheme, how quickly can this be combined with government funding for work to begin? Crucially, how will funding be affected by Brexit? Plans are excellent, but without swift, well thought-out implementation we will miss all the opportunities development could present.
To get firm answers, we will have to wait for the Arc-wide vision statement the Government promises to deliver by spring 2019. Also promised are an independent business chair to galvanise local, national and international support and a ministerial champion to coordinate Whitehall’s response. With the right people in place, we can be truly excited about the Arc’s future.