The OxCam Arc is back – under a different structure. And Ministers own it.

It’s in the Conservative Party’s General Election Manifesto 2019. Which if you see manifesto commitments as sacrosanct, means all those that campaigned on it back every single policy in that manifesto without question, complaint, or quibble.

The compromising paragraph is on page 31. (You can find the document in a simple online search).

“Through bodies like the Northern Powerhouse, Western Gateway and Midlands Engine we ill drive greater levels of foreign investment into the UK, promoting our towns, cities, and counties around the world. As part of our plans for full devolution we will also invite proposals from local areas for similar growth bodies across the rest of England such as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.”

Conservative Party Manifesto 2019, p31

The Chair of the Oxford-Cambridge Leadership Group is Cllr Barry Wood, the Conservative Leader of Cherwell District Council, a safe-as-military-fortresses Conservative-run council for which Cllr Wood has been its leader since June 2004. And he wrote a letter to the newly-reappointed Michael Gove on 31 October 2022. South Cambridgeshire District Council have published it at Item 16 Appendix A. See a screengrab below

Above – Letter from Cllr Wood to the Secretary of State responsible for local government.

I could be mischievous and say that Cllr Wood is writing on behalf of all Conservative councillors and politicians living within the designated area of the Arc and therefore under the conventions of political hierarchies upheld by Conservatives over the centuries, everyone there is expected to show the utmost loyalty to the Secretary of State and do whatever he says policy wise, with no dissent tolerated. But that’s not how politics works! Look at how the major political parties select their candidates for plum constituencies and you’ll see that it gets very, very messy!

There’s actually a lot more going on than internal party-political disagreements and faux shock about development plans from local councils of different party political colours.

The challenge for people who report, blog about, and commentate on local democracy is to sift the light from the noise.

The first point as I mentioned at the top is that the OxCam Arc is Government Policy until a Minister of the Crown makes a statement to Parliament saying that it isn’t. And Michael Gove messed up last time around with the launch of his Levelling Up White Paper in February 2022 by not mentioning the OxCam Arc. At All. And I tore him to pieces for it in this blogpost, saying that this was not leadership. The tougher decision for him would have been to have backed it or zapped it. And gone public with it. He did neither – and some of his local party supporters lauded him for creating a policy vacuum. The main political opposition to Gove’s Levelling Up plans came from his shadow opposite, Lisa Nandy MP who asked “Is that it?”. My criticism in this earlier blogpost at the start of February 2022 looked at another gapthe lack of co-ordination and connection between the delivery of local government services and local health services. Given that Lisa Nandy’s book All In: How we build a country that works, has now been published, part of the policy scrutiny focus can move to Labour. How might they address the same problems?

“Following our steer from Government…”

The above quotation from Cllr Wood’s letter indicates – like most big things in local government, reveals the [dead] hand of Whitehall on the actions of local councils working together. Now, having the influence of Whitehall behind something does not mean it’s inherently bad. Often you’ll find Members of Parliament quite rightly escalating local issues to ministers because of an impasse at a local level. The intervention of ministers and their officials can be very useful in overcoming problems – some of which may simply be not wanting to take the political/reputational hit on a controversial project.

The problem at the moment is that Michael Gove has not made a clear policy statement to Parliament about the future of the OxCam Arc. Yet in this statement from Cllr Wood it is very clear that a ‘very strong suggestion’ short of a formal instruction to local council leaders has been made by a minister (or with the agreement of a minister) at some point. Otherwise they would not have undertaken the actions to come up with the joint policy response to the re-appointed Secretary of State (i.e. Gove).

One of the first things one of the MPs in the OxCam Arc area needs to do is to table a Question in Parliament to Gove and ask him to make a policy statement.

Now, it may have come up earlier this week at Departmental Questions (see the video here from the start of proceedings in the House of Commons Chamber – I could not see anything listed on the Order Paper of Qs here), or the Select Committee hearing that Gove attended shortly after – see the video here (where the Chairman Clive Betts MP begins by asking about local council funding gaps following the Autumn Statement by the Chancellor.)

Not everyone is behind the OxCam Arc – some of the most vocal opponents are from within Gove’s own party.

The Stop the Arc Group started off life as a campaign against the now abandoned Oxford-Cambridge Expressway – i.e. a motorway linking the two university cities. The East-West-Rail project that has run into local opposition between Bedford and Cambridge received confirmation from The Chancellor that it will proceed. Which in principle I welcome. It’s some of the details I have issues with – such as I think it should be electrified from the start, should incorporate light rail and cycleways/footpaths alongside it to serve the villages that the line will bypass (enabling rural residents to have some benefits for the costs they will have to bear for a major piece of national transport infrastructure), and that businesses that benefit financially from it should be made to contribute – certainly by a tax on land value uplift as I mentioned in this blogpost. Again, some of those funds could go into those towns and villages that need the infrastructure investment to upgrade community, civic, and local transport facilities.

There are things the Conservatives can complain about Liberal Democrat councils over. The impacts of the OxCam Arc is not one of them.

The turbulence at the top of the Conservative Party has wasted a huge amount of public policy time and resources that could have sorted out a whole host of domestic issues – including reforming the planning system.

Above – overhauling the planning system is still in the ‘to do’ pile according to the Royal Town Planning Institute.

What’s even worse is the current system forces local councils effectively to subsidise developers building large developments, as Daisy Cooper MP (Lib Dems – St Albans) said in the Commons today.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome of conversations between Ms Cooper MP and ministers – including the new Planning Minister of State Lucy Frazer QC MP, are – as this could have a significant impact on the Greater Cambridge Planning Service’s chronic shortage of town planners.

England’s Economic Heartland – another quango/stakeholder group.

“What do they do?”

They are the sub-national transport body for the region.

“I didn’t know we needed a sub-national transport body for the region”

Turns out we do – with Transport East next door to us. In principle I don’t have a problem with such groups – so long as they are part of a consistent structure. At the moment, they are not. MPs on the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee told Ministers this a few months ago in their Governing England report. A Greater Cambridge Unitary Council for example might have been a suitable member for both organisations given the power of its local economy and its geographical position as a transport interchange for both road and rail.

Above – the Cambridge Triangle of Doom – the three major dual carriageways & motorway that strangles our city with the continual rumble of traffic in the background wherever you are inside this triangle.

For England’s Economic Heartland, the member councils are the unitary councils and county councils.

  • Bedford Borough Council
  • Buckinghamshire Council
  • Cambridgeshire County Council
  • Central Bedfordshire Council
  • Hertfordshire County Council
  • Luton Borough Council
  • Milton Keynes Council
  • North Northamptonshire Council
  • Oxfordshire County Council
  • Swindon Borough Council
  • Peterborough City Council
  • West Northamptonshire Council

Alongside them there are associate members:

  • Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CombinedAuthority *
  • Future Oxfordshire Partnership
  • Central Area Growth Board
  • Buckinghamshire Growth Board
  • Swindon and Wiltshire LEP
  • EEH Bus Operators Association

…and observers

  • The Department for Transport
  • Highways England
  • Network Rail

“Well I didn’t vote for them!”

You don’t vote for subregional transport board members!

“So how do you get to sit on one then?”

And this is why over-complicated bureaucratic structures make things worse for democracy and better for the wealthier and more influential interests who can pay the professional staff to figure out how best to influence decision-making. I refer you back to Nathaniel Lichfield’s diagram from his study of Cambridge town planning in 1966.

Above – Lichfield 1966. Again.

When you cross-reference these with Thomas Sharp’s principle of a city surrounded by and connected to market towns (below left), and the recommendation for a Greater Cambridge Unitary Council from Redcliffe-Maud’s Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69, you can see how this has some reason/logic to it.

Above left – Sharp 1931, and above-right, from Redcliffe Maud’s Royal Commission 1966-69

Which then brings me to “priority 4” of the Economic Heartland. Their board remit from 24 Sept 2021 agreed that improving local connectivity – incl first/last mile would be a priority.

Above – from p9 of the meeting of 24 Sept 2021, from their Board Strategy archive of papers here.

This is what I do now that I don’t get to go out much: Go digging where they like to bury the metaphorical policy and political bodies. There’s scope to challenge the EEH over things like:

  1. Sub-regional light rail as proposed by the LRTA
  2. Radically-expanded segregated cycleways, footpaths, and bridalways.
  3. Edge-of-town freight exchanges where freight from outside local areas – including internet orders – can be transferred to light electric/pedal-powered couriers, and e-vans for retail freight.

“Wouldn’t that increase costs for businesses?”

For some it would – but then the net result would be far fewer heavy freight vehicles on urban roads because of requirements for bulk packages (eg for supermarkets and high turnover retail) to transfer goods to smaller, lighter vehicles. In principle this would rebalance production in favour of local manufacturers and away from sweatshop-made goods made under poor working conditions and transported across the world on sea/air freight that still isn’t taxed, causing huge damage to the environment. At some stage we have to get used to the idea that collectively we cannot go on consuming the way we are (in particular those with the most wealth and the highest incomes – who have the biggest environmental footprints) and expect to be immune to the damage caused by the climate emergency.

The problem is I don’t see anything coming from central government on either. The only recent comment I’ve seen is this one from former local transport minister Norman Baker for the LRTA/ Tramways and Urban Transit Magazine.

Above – Baker’s plan:

  1. Incorporate light rail into national decarbonisation plans
  2. Overhaul the Transport and Work Act 1992 – simplify processes
  3. Identify where in the UK light rail is best suited – eg Leeds
  4. Reallocate funds from the £27billion Road Building Programme to light rail
  5. Empower local councils to levy [prosperous] businesses to pay for infrastructure
  6. Assess how to improve construction and delivery of light rail schemes – learn from Edinburgh tramways and others
  7. Explore variations in light rail – including very light rail /DLR for smaller cities and large towns
  8. Integrated ticketing (Still waiting for this on buses)
  9. Mobilise supporters effectively (easier said than done)
  10. Require transport ministers to present an annual light rail report to Parliament and be cross-examined by MPs and Peers on it in public.

I think that just about covers it. A reminder that Rail Future is coming to Cambridge on Saturday 3rd December 2022 from 2pm at The Signal Box Community Centre, Glenalmond Avenue, Cambridge CB2 8DB. See here for more.

Food for thought?

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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