The re-opening of the Varsity Line means not just re-connecting Oxford to Cambridge but threading together key growth points like Bicester, Bedford and Milton Keynes.
It’s a genuine opportunity for transport-led planning: East West Rail providing the strategic artery to pump life into new and necessary development as well as to reinvigorate areas in need of regeneration.
Momentum is building. Where I live in Bicester, we’re feeling the difference and the benefits. But so too expectations are rising – and that can be dangerous.
EG’s ‘Growth Corridor’ event on 5 December is welcome. We need developers, local authorities, transport bodies, politicians, landowners and investors to come together. We need to understand the scale of the opportunity and how it might be realised. Above all – and please forgive the W1A style speak – but we need to define what success looks like.
For decades, people have talked about making the most of the beacons of new thinking that are Oxford and Cambridge. Maximising their impact and potential. But despite some of the knowledge, science and tech-business success stories, these are still two cities with huge house price unaffordability, deep social inequality and crippling transport problems.
We must define what we want from the corridor if we are to achieve it.
It absolutely mustn’t be about simply creating a more efficient way for people to get in and out of Oxford and Cambridge while dumping residential growth onto country towns and villages.
It will fail if it misses the need to balance and manage the relationships between places. Oxford and Cambridge are the lynchpins and Bicester, Bedford and Milton Keynes will always be subordinate but they must be places in their own right and places where people want to live, work and spend their leisure time.
And it will fall short if it doesn’t deliver the homes that people need just as it will not be forgiven if it de-stabilises places like Winslow, Sandy and Cambourne. These cannot be dumping grounds to make up the million homes target. They must be respected and enabled with managed growth.
Where am I going with this? To reinforce the view that the corridor needs strategic planning and oversight. It needs a coordinated approach. It has to have some kind of strategic governance. It is not enough to rely on best intentions, collaboration and the self-balancing of perceived mutual interest.
So I’d welcome the idea of a Minister with responsibility to deliver the growth corridor alongside any measures which pull the potential together into a genuinely workable strategy and complementary policy framework. I’d welcome a true focus on balance, hierarchy, inter-relationship of place, and an appreciation of the differences along the corridor as much as the common ground.
Here’s looking forward to some lively debate with EG’s Damian Wild and Karl Schneider from Farmers Weekly on 5 December. See you there if you are going.
With the right oversight and a positive response from the property industry and players, I’m excited about what we can achieve. Work by the NIC has already done a great deal to highlight the opportunity.
And I won’t lie. I’m quite excited about getting a train from Bicester right through to Cambridge. I may even allow myself to say as the train pulls out: “Hasta la Bicester – come on Cambridge!”
Ben Copithorne is a director at Camargue working on projects across the Oxford-Cambridge arc.