In June, Commissioner Professor Sadie Morgan spoke at the Oxford-Cambridge Corridor economic growth conference in Milton Keynes.  Here, she writes on the enthusiasm and energy there is for the future of the area, and our recommendations for investing in its infrastructure.

June’s Economic Growth conference highlighted for me the real excitement and enthusiasm there is for the Growth Arc and its future.  Whether speakers were from academia or industry, Parliament or Town Hall, what united them was a clear desire to make sure the area’s economic success and ability to attract the brightest and best continued long into the future – all while retaining its natural beauty and sense of community.  We need to act now if we’re to meet that ambition.

The arc spanning Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Oxford suffers from an infrastructure network that is overworked, making east-west travel difficult, and a housing market that prices people out, restricting firms’ access to staff and impacting on the area’s competitiveness.  These issues must be tackled together if we are to realise the full potential of this important area, and to do so could boost its contribution to the national economy from £90billion to nearer £250billion by 2050.

In our report, Partnering for Prosperity, we at the National Infrastructure Commission recommended that new powers be put in place for local leaders by 2020, which would enable them to fund and raise the finance for major infrastructure improvements to support the delivery of new homes.  This would include an agreed plan between Ministers and local leaders across the area for new and expanded towns, underpinned by the powers of the New Town Development Corporations.  All this would mean that to meet local demand and ensure the area continues to attract the best talent, this new deal would need to deliver up to one million new homes across the Arc by 2050 – equivalent to a doubling of today’s rates of housebuilding.

For this to happen, the infrastructure needs to be in place to support existing and future residents.  I was therefore pleased to see that since the conference, Network Rail have applied to the Department for Transport to develop and re-open the Western Section of the East-West rail line from Bicester through to Bedford.  Much of this section has been left in a state of disrepair in the half-century since it was last used, and getting work started to clear the track will be crucial if our recommendation to have this part of the line up and running by 2023 is to be met .  The next challenge will be to finalise the route and get work started on the section from Bedford to Cambridge, so passengers can start using it from 2030.

The second part of the challenge is then to ensure we retain all the characteristics that attract people to live and bring up their families in the Growth Arc – and that includes the natural environment, and the sense of community that the towns and villages across the area have.  At the Economic Growth conference I heard the keenness to do this, particularly from local leaders.  But I’ve also seen for myself the creativity that’s out there to help us achieve it.  Our Growth Arc Ideas competition attracted 58 entries from across the worlds of architecture, engineering and town planning, with solutions for delivering new homes and infrastructure in this way.  The winning entry by multi-disciplinary team VeloCity, offered the creative option of developing a series of new villages within walking or cycling distance of each other – and their submission has since gone on to win the prestigious IMCL Honor Award.  This and the other entries have recently been the subject of an Exhibition of Ideas at the Transport Systems Catapult in Milton Keynes, giving residents the chance to see the proposals that were put forward.

Our work, and the discussions at the Economic Growth conference, demonstrated that if the Growth Arc is to have the vibrant communities that families and businesses want to see, there needs to be the transport connections and the creative ideas to deliver them.  To make the most of all that the area has to offer, Government and local leaders will need to unite and work together, alongside academia and business, to make that happen.

Professor Sadie Morgan is a commissioner with the National Infrastructure Commission.  This blog first appeared in Built Environment Networking