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Success of Oxford-Cambridge region requires strategic approach

Out-Law News | 18 Feb 2021 | 5:26 pm | 3 min. read

Strong leadership and commitment will be vital to the UK government's plans to develop the area between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge as a national economic priority area, according to planning experts at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.

Robbie Owen described the government's approach to transforming the 'Oxford-Cambridge Arc' as "a real and welcome opportunity and a potential pilot and exemplar for strategic spatial planning on a regional basis, delivering on long-term planned investment and sustainable growth".

The government has announced its intention to establish a formal 'Arc Growth Body' to act as a single economic voice for the region, which spans five counties, three county councils, 17 district councils, six unitary councils and a combined authority. The growth body will also be tasked with promoting the region internationally.

Owen said, however, that there are "plenty of potential legal pitfalls" in implementation of the policy paper accompanying the announcement, which sets out the government's proposed approach to developing a long-term spatial planning framework for the region.

"The government must firmly prioritise this initiative across Whitehall and its national agencies, and also ensure that it is complementary to and not knocked off course by the implementation of wider planning reforms," he said. "This initiative is a very significant task which will require a lot of resources and as much insulation as possible from day to day government crisis management and the normal bandwidth limitation issues we have understandably seen much of recently."

Owen Robbie_November 2019

Robbie Owen

Partner

This initiative is a real and welcome opportunity and a potential pilot and exemplar for strategic spatial planning on a regional basis.

"This initiative needs a dedicated minister and also the right person with international credentials to lead the proposed growth body. The individual development corporations the government is investigating will clearly need a strong delivery focus. Given the number of different interests and bodies in the Arc, as the policy paper recognises, bringing together all concerned will be no small task," he said.

The 'Oxford-Cambridge Arc' refers to the region incorporating the ceremonial counties of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Around 3.7 million people live and two million people work in the area, which is also home to Milton Keynes, the fastest-growing town in England, as well as a number of world-leading universities including Oxford and Cambridge.

The area has long been recognised by the government as a priority area for investment and, in March 2016, it asked the independent National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to make recommendations to maximise its potential. Its report, which was published the following November, called for a more strategic approach to planning and better transport links, developed with future housing delivery in mind.

The policy paper published by the government today sets out how it will develop a spatial framework for the area which, once complete, will have the status of national planning policy – a very important differentiator. The framework, a draft of which will be published for consultation next year, will cover jobs, investment and plans to protect and enhance the environment, as well as the region's housing and infrastructure needs.

Jan Bessell, also of Pinsent Masons, noted that the framework will also contain policy which supports "brownfield redevelopment and densification, and expansion of existing settlements, in sustainable locations or locations that can be made more sustainable by enhanced access to sustainable transport modes".

Jan Bessell

Jan Bessell

Strategic Planning Advisor

This will be a test of what has to happen nationally in the transition to net zero and will require a lot of innovative thinking and joint working at the same time as national policies in these respects are still evolving.

"Integration with, adaptation and enhancement of existing settlements and development, ensuring in particular that environmental gain and net zero is delivered holistically and without leaving existing infrastructure, development and communities behind, will be vital to the proper sustainable planning of the area and securing of benefits for the environment and communities overall," she said.

Noting that the paper "rightly" focused on enhancing natural capital and the transition to net zero emissions, as well as sustainable economic growth, Bessell said: "We need to ensure that resilience in 'green' and 'blue' infrastructure is fully planned for. This will be a test of what has to happen nationally and will require a lot of innovative thinking and joint working at the same time as national policies in these respects are still evolving."

Robbie Owen said: "It is important that the timescales envisaged do not slip if the transformation of the Arc is to play a key part in our national economic recovery post-Covid".

"Next month, it will have been five years since the government asked the NIC to look into the Arc's potential. The process outlined today indicates a draft spatial framework published for consultation in autumn 2022, so the final framework cannot be in place until approximately summer 2023 - so it will take over two years," he said.

"There are plenty of potential legal pitfalls in the road map, particularly in consulting lawfully and also carrying out a rigorous and legally compliant sustainability appraisal incorporating a Habitats Regulations assessment as well as ensuring Equalities duties are embedded and met. Three separate consultations are planned during the next 18 months, which are to be welcomed and are clearly designed to reduce the risk of legal challenge – but the government will need to work very hard to ensure it does consult effectively and lawfully with all stakeholders. The government is not used to doing this on proposals like these which are spatial in nature and cover an entire region, and this presents huge challenges if government is to avoid getting bogged down in a long series of legal challenges and so that it delivers on best practice," he said.