Ministers avoid the tough decision on the OxCamArc in their Levelling Up White Paper

This is not political leadership, it is political cowardice. All it leaves is a huge policy void that neither helps investors decide whether or not to invest in the region, nor local communities and environmentalists concerned about over-development in the face of the climate emergency.

“I am glad the OxCam Arc appears nowhere in the levelling up White Paper, and is no longer a government priority. Those community groups who fear the consequences of the OxCam Arc on their villages can breathe a little easier.”

A Browne MP (Cons – South Cambs) in the Cambridge Independent Feb 2022

Above – from the Cambridge Independent where political parties have been exchanging comments in recent weeks.

I’m trying to think of examples where the non-appearance of an existing and very controversial policy appears nowhere in a new White Paper published by the same government department – and it being seen as praiseworthy. And I’m struggling.

Exchanges between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in South Cambridgeshire comes about in the face of understandable residential concerns about economic growth (& in particular house building, and the growth of sectors like life sciences and technology), vs the need to protect and restore our already over-stretched local environment and water resources. Both South Cambridgeshire District Council and Huntingdonshire District Council are up for grabs as the full councils for both hold elections in early May 2022 – less than three months away.

“Can’t ministers simply ‘quietly drop’ the OxCamArc if they are getting too much heat from their local parties on development?”

This is one tactic that has been used regularly. The media might be briefed that this is ‘no longer a priority’ or ‘the agenda has moved on’ or ‘circumstances have changed’ – and so on. The problem with the OxCamArc is that so much work and investment of time and resources by so many organisations has gone into this major policy that it cannot be quietly dropped.

  • Too many already know about it
  • The work of too many people and organisations are affected by what Ministers choose
  • The issue is incredibly polarising both for (£Developers) and against (Environmentalists)
  • A non-decision will make *both* of the above *very angry*
  • Wherever ministers go on external visits the press will ask them about it
  • The way Parliament uses Urgent Questions means ministers will be forced to take up to an hour of questions on the future of the Arc – and stalling will make ministers look weak and incompetent
  • None of the political heat will get directed at their political opponents, who in the meantime have the space to come up up with their own alternative policies while learning from the errors ministers keep making.

Work on the OxCamArc really got going when the then Conservative Chancellor George Osborne announced in the March 2016 Budget that the new National Infrastructure Commission would be commissioned to study how to maximise the economic potential of the area of land between Oxford, Milton Keynes, and Cambridge.

The National Infrastructure Commission reported back in November 2017, and the Government’s formal response was published in late October 2018 – having already announced proposals the previous month about a new motorway between Oxford and Cambridge.

In March 2019 The Government announced its new OxCamArc Policy – in a joint declaration with a host of local councils and quangos signed up, including Cambridgeshire County Council and the Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough – both controlled by the Conservatives at the time. Recall in the Government’s response to the October 2018 Report (See p3 ono of here) there were a number of significant long term funding commitments.

The scrapping of the unpopular plans for an Oxford-Cambridge Motorway.

The one project ministers really got it in the neck over was the proposed motorway – the result being the scrapping of what would have been a £multi-billion project in March 2021. The Transport Secretary made a video praising one of the backbench local MPs for persuading him to scrap it (See the link here), while one of the Lib Dems said it was them wot got it cancelled. (With huge projects like these it’s often a collective effort with MPs working across party lines, then spinning their party’s contribution upon achieving their aim).

“Has the OxCamArc actually been scrapped in its entirety?”

Until a minister makes a formal policy statement confirming its abolition, no.

Such is the amount of work that has already gone into the policy itself that any proposal to do so would have to be handled with the utmost sensitivity by Whitehall. Why? Because financial interests. Very big ones.

When ministers make big long term plans about infrastructure investment, financial institutions and businesses start aligning their own long term business and investment plans accordingly. Alongside the inevitable speculators that come with it, buying up plots of land cheaply where they think a new town or new station is going to be built that they can then sell on for a higher price, banking the profits. It was this ‘land value uplift’ that the previous Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough James Palmer wanted to tax/capture in order to pay for his CAM Metro. But he was unable to persuade The Treasury to change the law to enable not just himself, but mayors of combined authorities across the country to do the same. I think this was and is a huge barrier kept in place by Treasury ministers to improving our local and regional transport infrastructure. Every year at The Budget/Finance Bill, they have the opportunity to change this. They never do.

Mixed signals from ministers and their backbench MPs

I saw this for myself when the Minister for Science visited Cambridge and appeared on a panel with the Mayor for Cambs & Peterborough Dr Nik Johnson – and as I noted, the message from the minister was all about growth. This has been in direct contradiction to his parliamentary colleague the MP for South Cambridgeshire – now facing a much higher profile contest for the Parliamentary seat at the next general election from the Liberal Democrats’ Cllr Pippa Heylings. Furthermore, even within Cambridgeshire itself we heard from Conservative district council leaders at the last Combined Authority Board that parts of our county need more growth to deal with poor infrastructure, poverty, and multiple deprivation. Hence the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (LibDems – Newnham) stated the following:

Note this isn’t just a party political point – though the party politics always has to be accounted for. When the OxCamArc was announced as a major Government policy to cover an extended number of years, the local councils in the geographical area concerned got together to form a single organisation to look out for their interests. This is England’s Economic Heartland. And they have a few members who might look familiar.

Above – both Cambridgeshire County Council and the Combined Authority are represented.

And they will be discussing the impact of the Levelling Up White Paper at their Board Meeting in…five days time!

Above – you can read the board papers here – click on the ones for 18 Feb 2022 – where the paper’s author cities a host of concerns some of which are reflected by Cllr Nethsingha for Cambridgeshire County Council.

Not only that, they are joining other organisations for a big conference in May 2022 on sub-regional transport.

…Which brings us back to the lack of any mention of the OxCamArc in the Levelling Up White Paper.

There are two influential groups that ministers have got to deal with:

  1. The developers who are major contributors to the Conservative Party (thus creating a powerful financial incentive to develop policies that will keep them on board)
  2. Local constituency parties especially in rural areas, that are more than willing and able to ‘rock the boat’ if they feel their own communities are being threatened by their own Government’s policies – such as major house building programmes.

Sometimes being a minister can involve taking a decision that requires you to decide which group you want to p*ss off the least. One of the reasons The Green Party has been winning council by-election seats off Conservatives in recent times is often on the back of proposals for large developments. In January 2022 The New Statesman Magazine identified this new development in party politics – the Blue vs Green front. This was one of the reasons why the recent Green Party Leadership Election Result was a real ‘fork in the roads’ moment for the party – the choice between a young radical pair (Tamsin Omond and Amelia Womack) vs a slightly older pair with strong local government roots (Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay). The membership went for the latter.

With the decision to omit the OxCamArc in Levelling Up, all ministers have done is to create uncertainty across one of their electoral heartlands.

This will not be popular with finance and industry who had assumed they could rely on the major policy statements on the OxCamArc in recent years regarding their own investment decisions.

Furthermore this will only raise further questions with residents and constituents over what the Government’s real plans are. This from the Mayor of St Neots, Cambs.

As others stated, at least the OxCamArc provided something of a region-wide framework that could have required developers to meet environmental standards even higher than what are in existing local plans and housing targets. Which is one of the reasons why Cllr Bridget Smith (Lib Dems – Gamligay) made a successful pitch to lead the Arc’s Environment Working Group.

“As soon as I became leader of the council in 2018 I lobbied council leaders and ministers to ensure the environment was at the centre of the plans for the Arc.”

Cllr Bridge Smith to Ben Hatton, Cambridge Independent, Oct 2020

As for where the 1million homes number came from? That dates back to 2008.

“We also need to expand London – making it a mile bigger would create 400,000 new houses. And to think about adding as many as a million houses in Oxford and Cambridge”

Dr Tim Leunig, The Guardian, Aug 2008

Above – Dr Leunig later went on to advise a number of Government departments – currently at The Treasury, where he recently made the headlines in Manchester over proposals over lower wages in the north.

Parliament is on recess over the half term break, so politics watchers can have a look at what the Economic Heartland Board will make of Levelling Up vs the OxCamArc on Friday 18 Feb, noting that there’s always the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly happening the day before – papers are here – plus my own assessment here.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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