Who would have thought that, when my partner and I bought our first house a few years ago, it would turn out to be in ‘Britain’s Silicon Valley’! Well, that’s where it is, according to the National Infrastructure Commission interim report into the Cambridge – Milton Keynes – Oxford Corridor.
This interim report was published last week after the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was asked by the government back in March 2016 to consider how to maximise the potential of the Cambridge- Milton Keynes- Oxford corridor.
Having worked in Oxford, commuted from Milton Keynes and developed a client base in Cambridge, I can’t deny that curiosity got the better of me and I was very interested to see what the NIC had to say.
Capitalising on the Corridor
Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge already boast a wealth of capabilities in science, technology and innovation, playing host to world leading universities and research institutes and a concentration of businesses in the scientific research and development, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, high-tech manufacturing, performance technology and motorsport sectors. The NIC recognises this and wants the Corridor to continue to build on these strengths, particularly as it competes with locations across the globe to attract talent and investment.
For most people, it may seem obvious why Cambridge and Oxford are key to this equation. So I will just have one small moment of local pride if I may. In 2016, Northampton had the second highest number of start-ups per 10,000 residents in the UK outside London; while Milton Keynes has the highest productivity per worker across the Corridor.
Now, you may ask: why; when the Corridor has been boasting this type of prowess for several decades, has it not already become a resounding success to rival London?
The answer is simple. The region lacks sufficient affordable housing and has dreadful infrastructure. It has consistently failed to build the number of homes it needs and this shortage puts its growth at risk by making it difficult to attract and retain the type of talent on which the region so depends.
As the NIC rightly notes in its report, without a joined-up plan for housing, jobs and infrastructure, there is a danger that the Corridor will be left behind by its international competitors. And as we all know, in this brave new world, it really is more important than ever that we make sure this does not happen.
But can the age old problems which have dogged this region be overcome? The NIC thinks so. It sets out several detailed recommendations as to what needs to be done for the Corridor to outshine Silicon Valley in California. These fall broadly into the following categories:
- Rail: The NIC recommends that the government should commit to delivering the Western Section of the East West Rail project before 2024. To achieve this, it proposes that the government bring forward £100m in funding to accelerate design and development, and commit construction monies as necessary to integrate construction of the East West Rail Western Section with work on HS2 and fully maximise the benefits of the project. The NIC proposes that the government should also commit up to £10m in development funding to continue work on the Central Section of the East West Rail link.
- Housing: The NIC recommends that local authorities should recognise the benefits of East West Rail and develop and agree, working with national government, an ambitious strategy for housing development and delivery around stations and station towns. Whilst the NIC doesn’t specifically ask the government to commit to any funding or obligation on housing, it does highlight affordable housing as a big concern for the Corridor, particularly in Oxford and Cambridge where house prices are double the national average.
- Road: The NIC recommends that the government should commit £27m to the end of 2018/19 to fund the next phase of development work on the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway study, allowing the detailed design process to begin as soon as possible.
- Importance of co-ordination: There is much emphasis in the report on the importance of co-ordination between local authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, government departments and national delivery agencies. The NIC makes clear that these bodies need to work together to develop an integrated strategic plan for infrastructure, housing and jobs and also co-ordinate on planning matters.
- Importance of design: The NIC emphasises that the quality of infrastructure design and its impact on maintaining and enhancing the character of the built environment should be central to any strategic plan for the area.
The NIC itself recognises its own limitations in putting any of its recommendations into action and is relying heavily on stakeholders to take this forward. After all, this is only an interim report. The final report will accompany the NIC’s formal recommendation to government some time in “late 2017”, with a focus on how to drive delivery of these aims.
Having spent what seem like days of my life sat in traffic on the A34, I welcome any potential improvement to the infrastructure in the Corridor. A boost in jobs can’t be a bad thing either. To borrow a sentiment from one of our previous blogs, we haven’t given up hope just yet that the UK might, one day, become a true world leader in co-ordinated infrastructure. Maybe I will hang on to that first house of mine for a little while longer, although I’m not sure prices will jump quite as high as the real Silicon Valley just yet.