STRATEGIC PLANNING IN THE CAMBRIDGE – MILTON KEYNES – OXFORD CORRIDOR: A DISCUSSION PAPER – Response

Response to

An integrated strategic plan

Q1. Can the approach to strategic planning explored in this paper help to:

  1. tackle major constraints on future economic growth – i.e. the undersupply of homes and weaknesses in east-west transport infrastructure;
  2. maximise the potential of major new east-west infrastructure links; and
  3. develop distinct towns and cities into a major economic corridor?

Q2. How could the approach to strategic planning be amended or strengthened to better achieve these aims?

 

Greetings,

I have strong interest in this area having advised both Cambridge and Northampton on strategic planning issues and, though I am now based abroad, having written and advised extensively on strategic planning issues and the opportunities of this area.

The discussion paper sets out cogently the need for strategic planning in the area and the need for joint governance structures, however these are two separate but overlapping issues.  There is a need for a strategic plan for drive joint programmes in a joined-up way, there is also a need for governance structures to manage joint programmes across the region including the preparation of the strategic plan itself.

The management task then is one of portfolio management, managing a range of complex and integrated programmes including the delivery of a strategic plan and the management of infrastructure and human capital investment programmes deriving from that plan.

The discussion paper ‘jumps straight in’ to the governance arrangements, however a better approach would be to take a ‘project portfolio management’ which would begin with the scoping of the portfolio.

The scoping needs to address the challenges and opportunities the area faces and then build consensus through stakeholders on the commissioning process for the strategy, including but not confined to the governance of the strategy itself.

One of the key lessons learned from past strategic initiatives, such as Thames Gateway, MKSM, London, Stansted- Cambridge, the Arc etc. is if their purpose is not clearly framed and shared then there will not be sufficient ‘buy in’ from key stakeholders and joint working withers on the vine.  This is a clear risk to current regional initiatives such as Northern Powerhouse and the ‘Oxford-Cambridge’ Arc.

Emerging out of a political climate that is hostile to regional and sub-regional approaches it is imperative that the business case for a strategic plan is clear.  It is not enough to state that there are housing affordability problems, though particularly acute in Oxford and Cambridge these are problems across almost all of England; the business case needs to be clearer as to what marks this area out and how opportunities cohere to form the region which requires the plan.  When the discussion paper refers to transport corridors it is on clearer ground, however the ‘Oxford Cambridge Expressway’ will not primarily serve the purpose of commuting between Oxford and Cambridge, and if it did it would be a poor investment, rather it serves the purpose of West-East movement to the East Coast Port and Europe and regional movements between the South Midlands and East Anglia.  Hence there needs to be much more clarity on the drivers of Economic Geography.

Ahead of the formal setting up of long term governance structures the Infrastructure Commission should draw together stakeholders to scope the strategy based on an analysis of these drivers.  Long term governance structure might take months, and years if as is likely it requires legislation.  Hence an interim structure whereby the commission is client for a strategy should be preferred with an advisory board which can evolve for a formal governing board with legal authority over time.

In my view the key economic drivers are as follows:

  1. The weak East West Links to the East Coast ports and North of London more generally which holds back the economic development of the South Midlands/East Anglia.
  2. The tight constraints (both policy and physical) around the university Oxford and Cambridge which creates economic development and housing affordability issues as well as long distance commuting.
  3. The underdevelopment of knowledge based industries in other major towns in the region such as Aylesbury, Northampton and Milton Keynes which all lack Universities.
  4. The opportunities presented by East-West Rail and HS2 freeing up major capacity on WCML – opportunities which converge around Milton-Keynes and Northampton.
  5. The opportunities presented by major former defense bases which have closed or are about to close – such as Alconbury and Lakenheath.
  6. A series of new and expanded towns and Garden Cities which have now reached their originally planned size and now need to consider options for future growth
  7. Past growth in the area being planned without proper consideration of supporting water infrastructure which is now a constraint on growth (e.g. the Rye Meads treatment plant. Now a special protection area, which serves 5 towns).
  8. The fact that London and Greater Birmingham cannot meet there housing needs within their boundaries.  This need overspills to the surrounding area and could total over 1 1/2 million homes.  These pressures and opportunities converge in the Arc area.

Arising from this a strategic plan needs to do three things:

  1. Optimize the locations of major employment growth at transport nodes
  2. Link the nodes with regional transport networks
  3. Plan for strategic new housing locations at optimum transport nodes on this network so that jobs can be accessed at lowest cost and sustainably.

This networks approach where networks link hubs should replace the flawed language of corridors.  This lead to the flawed and abandoned approach in the early London-Stansted-Cambridge work where seemingly every field between London and Cambridge was surveyed for potential housing growth, when it was always the case that a limited number of nodes only was required.

Need for clarity on the drivers is essential.  For example, unless there is clarity on whether the stakeholders including Central Government accept the need for overspill from metropolises then the programme could failure later down the line in terms of disagreement about options, or worse face legal challenges down the line from development interests.

The challenges also provide clarity on the geographical coverage of the strategy and governance, a key issue which the paper omits.

I would strongly recommend that the arc sweeps from Swindon to Ipswich/Bury/Lowestoft not just Oxford/MK/Cambridge, and also considers the intersection of other transport corridors which have great potential such as WCML, WAGN and London/Stansted/Cambridge – and so should include Northampton, Harlow, Stevenage etc.

Finally follow through requires strong Treasury support.  The Treasury will soon be piloting development rights auctions in a transport corridor.  This could be strongly compatible with the new ‘permission in principle’(Zoning) model and strategic sites arising from the strategy.  This could solve the infrastructure problem of costs being front loaded and values backloaded by giving an income stream through land capture that could be borrowed against.  This is a model pioneered in the area in Garden Cities.  Borrowing however needs to be ‘off balance sheet’ of the PSBR, and this should be taken into account in setting up governance arrangements for receipt and spending of value capture and ensuring compatibility with State Aid rules.  It may be an arm’s length company limited by guarantee is needed where public sector bodies do NOT have an equity stake.

The lesson of past failures in this region is that weak ‘partnership’ models have no legs.  Without a clear mandate and budget, they have not garnered long term stakeholder support.  Also models which have involved direct central government intervention (e.g. UDCs) had limited achievements because of local hostility.

 

New Opportunities

Q3. Can the approach to strategic planning explored in this paper provide a basis for improved long-term collaboration and engagement between the corridor and:

  1. housing developers;
  2. infrastructure providers (e.g. in the telecommunications and utilities sectors) and investors; and
  3. central government – through, for example, a new, long-term ‘infrastructure compact’?

Q4. How could the approach to strategic planning be amended or strengthened to better achieve these aims? What else will be required for partners across the corridor to develop these relationships and exploit these opportunities?

 

Governance

Q5. Do you agree with the design principles set out at paragraph 41?

How might these be developed or amended to better enable collective decision-making?

Q6. Should any new cross-corridor governance structures preserve a role for subregional collaboration?

Q7. Can the opportunities afforded by strategic planning, be exploited without statutory governance structures to ‘lock-in’ collaboration over the long-term?

Q8. If informal models of collaboration are to be sufficient, how can local authorities give confidence to wider stakeholders that their commitment to a) their strategic plans, and b) joint-working will sustain over the long-term?

 

In the post-RS NPPF DTC world the duty to cooperate is supposed to fill the vacuum.  It either hasn’t happened or is happening too slowly.

The reasons for this are the duty to cooperate takes 5 or moves years to ‘bite’.  First LPAs have to realise they have to cooperate, then commission strategic housing and other studies and then reach unanimity – as if they were the medieval Polish parliament.  On issues of urban expansion there is a clear bias in favour of rural districts surrounding urban towns which they outnumber.  As geographical area expands the sheer number of authorities requiring unanimity expands exponentially.

The other major failing regarding the Duty concerns the failure so far to deal with metropolitan overspill and even agree a structure/MoU to tackle it, or even in some cases that there is an issue at all.

Whilst the paper is correct that the role of Central government needs to be supportive rather than directive of the strategy and its delivery strategy under current legislation including the DTC can only work if National Government provides clear support.

In my view National Government needs to do five things if the Programme is to be a success:

  1. Set down a policy position that the Arc Strategy is a National priority and to fulfill the DTC stakeholders should work together to further the strategy
  2. The strategy needs to be agreed by a board of affected authorities and the NIC but this need not be subject to a rule of unanimity
  3.  The strategy will be subject to informal panel appointed by the PI/SOS its recommended changes then going forward for the SoS for endorsement
  4. Once endorsed local plans must be in general conformity with the strategy to fulfill the DTC and be sound
  5. The SoS will devolve infrastructure spending/development auction revenues to an Arc governance body providing it agrees to further the strategy and agrees to a proportionate share of housing need overspill from Greater Birmingham and Greater London as set out in the strategy.

In terms of the sub-regional/regional interface the lesson of past regional planning projects is that they are largely pieced together – not always coherently – from sub-regional plans.  Retention of strong sub-regional cooperation is essential not least because of the scale of the area and the success of some existing partnerships.  It is essential though that the regional strategy is properly resourced and driven by a dedicated team/consultants so it coheres and has its own identity – not just being a part time endeavor.  There should however be no need for a middle tier of sub-regional plans/MOUs.  This would be too complicated and be slow to ‘trickle down’ rather sub-regional work should flow up into the strategy plan.

 

Developing and delivering an integrated strategic plan

 Q9. How could local authorities make early progress in the development of an integrated strategic plan, prior to the development of any new collective governance arrangements?

Q10. How can progress against the plan be assessed and the effectiveness of the plan monitored and evaluated? Are there examples of good practice from which lessons can be learned?

The preparation of the strategy cannot wait until long term governance arrangements are worked through and legislated for.

The NIC  should commission the strategy in late summer 2017 following scoping work with local authorities – and then set up an interim programme board to manage the contract.  You would be waiting decades if dozens of individual districts, county councils and combined authorities each took to their members a budget and agreement to commission a strategy.  It would take as long to agree as DTC MOUs – we already know this doesn’t work in the necessary timescale.

Also long term governance cannot wait until there is universal coverage of combined authorities, therefore it is necessary to have large and potentially unwieldy board arrangements.  This should be seen as a supervisory board however not an executive board.  An executive board should comprise one rep per county plus one from each of the four main town, Oxford, Cambridge, MK and Northampton because for political reasons county only representation would be unacceptable.  Day to day management should in the short term rest with the NIC as the only constituted and capable body already in existence able to handle the commissioning work.

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