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Transport and housing at centre of Infrastructure Commission's vision for 'UK Silicon Valley'

Out-Law News | 18 Nov 2016 | 4:05 pm | 3 min. read

The latest report of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) provides the "best example yet" of the independent body covering the intersection between infrastructure and housing, an expert has said.

This is despite the fact that the Commission's remit does not explicitly extend to housing, according to infrastructure planning expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

Earlier this year, the NIC was asked to report on how best to develop the area between Cambridge and Oxford into a "single, knowledge-intensive cluster" able to compete as global centre for science, technology and innovation excellence. In an interim report, the body called for action to address the lack of "sufficient and suitable housing" in the area and poor transport links.

Owen, who is a member of an expert group set up to support and scrutinise the work of the NIC, said that the report was "further evidence" of the body's ability to produce solid recommendations to government on specific areas of infrastructure need.

"This will instil confidence in the NIC, pending the chancellor announcing the next crop of short-term reports for it to be getting on with alongside the Autumn Statement next week, between its National Infrastructure Assessment and pending the appointment of a permanent chair," he said.

The NIC was set up in October 2015, and is currently operating on an interim basis before it is formally established as an arms-length executive agency of the UK Treasury in January 2017. Its role is to take a long-term look at the UK's infrastructure needs, and to provide independent advice to ministers and parliament.

In its latest report, the NIC said that the UK had a "once in a generation opportunity" to secure the future success of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor. Despite the area's international reputation as the home of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, it was let down by a lack of strategic planning, housing and transport links.

To address this, the government must commit to the planned East West Rail link and a new road route, the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, according to the NIC. The first stage of the rail route, from Oxford to Bedford and Milton Keynes, should be delivered before 2024, and detailed plans to extend the line to Cambridge developed as soon as possible, it said. Plans for these major new transport links should also be developed with the specific intention of delivering the tens of thousands of new homes that the area desperately needs.

Local authorities, government departments and Local Enterprise Partnerships have a vital role to play in delivering a more joined-up vision for housing, jobs and infrastructure in the area, which will also include joint governance arrangements, according to the report. The NIC will work with local and national government and other stakeholders to put this strategy in place as part of the second phase of the project, it said.

Armitt said that "better strategic planning" was needed for the area to become "greater than the sum of its parts". At present, transport links were often "slow, unreliable and congested", and the area was "home to two of the least affordable cities in the UK, in part because it has consistently failed to build the homes it needs", he said.

"These twin failings are already increasing costs for businesses and diminishing their ability to attract employees at all levels - including the recruitment and retention of globally mobile talent," he said.

"This area can become greater than the sum of its parts with better strategic planning which radically improves its transport connectivity whilst securing the tens of thousands of new homes it so desperately needs. East West Rail and the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway can be a catalyst to bring the region together to deliver the housing and connectivity it will need to compete with the best in the world," he said.

The direct rail connection between Oxford and Cambridge was closed in 1967. Those who wish to travel between the two cities must either travel by coach or by train via London. The government committed £270 million to the first phase of a reopened East West Rail line, between Oxford and Bedford, as part of the 2011 Autumn Statement.

"Oxford to Cambridge cross-country by rail has remained a transportation enigma since the days of Beeching, although Network Rail has been progressing major East-West rail developments with contracting alliances," said transport expert Jonathan Hart of Pinsent Masons. "The NIC's comments highlight how important the successful delivery of this will be for encouraging regeneration and economic growth."

"This is a positive announcement which demonstrates the willingness of the NIC to fulfil the mandate given to it by the previous government, even if there have been some questions asked in relation to the absence of statutory independence for the body, as was first anticipated and as has recently been ruled out by the current administration," he said.