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The Chinese would solve the Oxford to Cambridge corridor’s transport problems by building a new high-speed railway tunnel between the two varsity cities, the Vice Chancellor at the University of Northampton has said.

Speaking at our Oxford Cambridge Corridor Development Conference Nick Petford said that he was ‘struck by the 20th century approach’ that characterises thinking about the corridor’s development: “The Chinese would stick a tunnel between Oxford and Cambridge and have a train running along it at 350km per hour.”
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But Phil Graham, Chief Executive of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), said the historic centres of the two cities limited the scope for such radical changes: “We can’t build new transport in central Oxford or Cambridge, they are beautiful historic assets that are part of what brings people to this corridor.”

The answer to the corridor’s transport problems is to optimise its existing transport networks instead, he said.

Graham also backed the Government’s proposal to appoint a chair from a business background to drive the corridor’s development, saying that setting up a new over-arching authority instead to spearhead the corridor’s development could be a ‘recipe for delay’.

He said: “That’s incredibly important and the bit that is still missing. Inevitably there are going to be different views and tensions and you need a single point of focus to provide leadership and really drive it forward. I really hope we will see the Government moving forward with that,” adding that he welcomed moves by local authorities along the corridor to establish collaborative structures.

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He defended the NIA’s target for 1m new homes in the corridor by 2050, which has subsequently been adopted by the Government: “There isn’t a map with a million homes on it because this is something that is proposed to happen over 40-50 years. If you want to maintain that kind of growth, it should be planned.”

The 1m homes figures is based on an estimate of population growth that the corridor will experience if its recent economic success continues together with some population overspill from London and the South East.

He said the planning of the corridor’s links had to consider how it links with adjacent areas and ‘not treat it as an island’, pointing out that one of the reasons for building the Expressway is to relieve pressure on the A34 from Oxford to Didcot. But responding to concerns that the corridor should be widened out to incorporate areas to the east and west like East Anglian and Swindon, the NIC Chief Executive said: “Building a shared vision for a region is challenging and the further you expand the more stakeholders you need to involve.”

The NIC will put pressure on the Government to make sure that the national infrastructure strategy is robust when it is published later this year: “Our job is to keep up pressure on the government to make sure that strategy is a set of clear edged proposals of what is to be done rather than a woolly statement of principles and identification of issues that the government will think about.”

Cllr Nigel Young, Executive Member for Regeneration at Central Bedfordshire Council, warned delegates that the Government’s new standard methodology for assessing local planning authorities’ housing needs will require the borough’s record annual completion rate to be to exceeded every year for the next two decades.

He said the methodology stipulated that Central Bedfordshire should deliver 2,553 homes per annum, which works out at 51,060 over the next 20 years. This rate of output is 9,000 more dwellings higher than if the council delivered over the next 20 years at last year’s record rate of housing completions. Over the past five years, the council had delivered 7,200 homes.

Suzanne Malcolm, Director of the Institute of Economic Development, said there is a lot of uncertainty in local communities about the development plans for the corridor: “They see a new motorway linking Oxford and Cambridge, damaging the green belt and sensitive landscapes, not the opportunity and economic growth.”

But she said that the ability of local authorities to shape that growth is limited by the one third cut that their economic development departments have suffered in recent years.

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Naisha Polaine, Director at the Department for International Trade, said that while there is ‘lots of appetite’ from China to invest in the UK, her team is having trouble finding projects to include in its soon to be published portfolio for the Oxford-Cambridge corridor.

The debate followed an opening keynote speech by Helen Wylde, Chief Engagement Officer at the MK based Transport Systems Catapult, in which she outlined her vision of how the corridor could be transformed within the next 20 years.

She said: “When you are putting in motorway you are building it for at least 100 years. Whatever we do in Oxford-Cambridge, we are doing 100 years out.”


The next Oxford Cambridge Corridor Development Conference takes place on the 22nd June 2019. Click here to register.