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01/03/2021

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc could be an exemplar for strategic spatial planning - but it needs serious commitment

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Oxford to Cambridge

Resources, attention to detail and a dedicated minister will be required if the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Arc is to be all it can be, says Robbie Owen

Strong leadership and commitment will be vital to the government's plans to develop the Oxford-Cambridge Arc as a national economic priority area. 

The Arc is a potential pilot and exemplar for strategic spatial planning on a regional basis, delivering on long-term planned investment and sustainable growth. Whilst last month's policy paper – Planning for sustainable growth in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc – is very welcome, setting out the government's proposed approach to developing a long-term spatial planning framework for the region, there will be plenty of potential legal pitfalls in its implementation.

The government must firmly prioritise this initiative across Whitehall and its national agencies, and ensure that it is complementary to and not knocked off course by the implementation of the wider planning reforms. This initiative is a significant task which will require a lot of resources and as much insulation as possible from day-to-day government crisis management and the Whitehall bandwidth limitation issues we have seen much of in recent years.

“This will be a test of what has to happen nationally and will require a lot of innovative thinking and joint working”

This initiative needs a dedicated minister and the right person with international credentials to lead the proposed growth body. Given the number of different interests and bodies in the Arc, bringing together all stakeholders will be no small task.

The policy paper sets out how government will develop a spatial framework for the area which, once complete, will have the status of national planning and transport policy – a very important differentiator. The framework, a draft of which will be published for consultation next year, will cover jobs, investment and plans to protect and enhance the environment, as well as the region's housing and infrastructure needs. The framework will also contain policy which supports "brownfield redevelopment and densification, and expansion of existing settlements, in sustainable locations or locations that can be made more sustainable by enhanced access to sustainable transport modes". 

The paper rightly focuses on enhancing natural capital and the transition to net zero emissions as well as sustainable economic growth, but we also need to ensure that resilience in 'green' and 'blue' infrastructure is fully planned for. This will be a test of what has to happen nationally and will require a lot of innovative thinking and joint working at the same time as national policies in these respects are still evolving.

It is also important that the timescales envisaged do not slip if the transformation of the Arc is to play a key part in our national economic recovery post Covid.

“There are plenty of potential legal pitfalls in the road map ahead, particularly in consulting lawfully and also carrying out a rigorous and legally compliant sustainability appraisal”

It is now exactly five years since government asked the National Infrastructure Commission to look into the Arc's potential. The process outlined last month indicates that a draft spatial framework will be published for consultation in autumn 2022, so the final framework is unlikely to be in place until approximately summer 2023, taking around two and a half years from now.

There are plenty of potential legal pitfalls in the road map ahead, particularly in consulting lawfully and also carrying out a rigorous and legally compliant sustainability appraisal incorporating a Habitats Regulations assessment as well as ensuring that equalities duties are embedded and met. 

Three separate consultations are planned during the next 18 months – which are to be welcomed and are clearly designed to reduce the risk of legal challenge – but the government will need to work very hard to ensure it does consult effectively and lawfully with all stakeholders and that all of these technical appraisals and assessments carried out are robust. The trouble, though, is that government is just not used to doing this on proposals like these, which are spatial in nature and cover an entire region. This presents huge challenges if the government is to avoid getting bogged down in a series of legal challenges and so that it delivers on best practice.

Robbie Owen is head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at Pinsent Masons

Photo | iStock

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