The Cambridge to Oxford Connections Completion Shortlist Gallery Revealed – A Disappointing Student’s Charette?

Its the biggest thing in Spatial Planning in Europe.

Huge anticipation of the results.

The shortlist of four announced from 58, yes 58 first stage entries.  Now published on The Malcolm Reading Website.

Lets say first the shortlisted entrants had an impossible task.  There was only 5 weeks to put together a consortium and prepare an ’emerging concept’ whilst the description of the emerging concept was highly sketchy – focusing on architectural typologies for a single community rather than a regional spatial vision.  This seemed to reflect tensions in the  competition judging panel between people of different professional backgrounds, architects, planners etc.  What is more it was run as an architectural competition rather than a spatial planning RFP.  This was simply too short a time for many such as myself to prepare serious proposals and ones informed by economic and transport research and modelling rather than simply a straight to paper urban design sketch.

What is more the competition was launched very late in the process. The National Infrastructure Commission had two years to prepare its strategy for the corridor after the announcement by George Osborne in 2015. The deadline was the autumn statement of 2017 (now the Budget 2017 November).  For the final strategy.

The remit set out in the former Chancellors letter was as an infrastructure strategy not a spatial plan (as the NIC are keen to point out) however one which included

‘Priority infrastructure to:… Develop sites (including public sector land) to meet existing and expected housing need, create new developments which are smart and sustainable, and provide commercial space for existing companies and inward investment.’ (Chancellors Brief to NIC 2015)’

The consultation responses to to the NICs interim report had an overwhelming call for a focus on additional housing as the main constraint on economic growth on the corridor. What everyone is clamoring to know is where are the growth locations, where are the new towns and garden cities?

However, again as the NIC will stress, the final report to be announced in the Budget wont answer this.  It is beyond their scope.  Rather the task of preparing a spatial plan, if ministers are persuaded of the need for one, will be handed over to the DCLG and government.  Indeed if you were preparing a spatial plan you would have started the process differently, having a scoping report for an SEA for example, this hasn’t been done yet so procedurally we are at least two years away from a regional plan.

Another common misconception is the competition winner will be drafting the spatial plan.  No it is an ideas competition announced at the 11th hour in the two year process.  The competition winner will be announced (early November)  after the NIC have handed their draft corridor report to the chancellor. Indeed the only prize seems to be picture credits in the final report – plus quodos of course.

The final designs produced by the shortlist will be used in the Commission’s Report to government in late 2017 and will be fully credited to the authors. The teams may also be given a continuing role as the wider project develops.

In any event those advising the government, if they do go for a full spatial plan, will need to go through a full OJEC procurement process anyway.  It would have been so much better if there had been a full procurement via a full RFP with a proper budget than this approach which is essentially getting ideas for free from the consultants – except of course for the 4 x £10,000 honiara.

So what form will the final Oxford Cambridge Connection Report by the NIC take.  On good authority more likely to be like the High Speed North report – a strategy towards a strategy – than a full spatial strategy.  Setting out a road map for the key infra decision like the final East West Rail and Expressway routes.  There may also be some quite bold announcements on infrastructure, so watch this space.

Turning now to the shortlist gallery.  I must say that perhaps I am biased and have some ‘skin in the game’ I with the help of some colleagues have been working for 9 months on a conceptual spatial and infrastructure plan for the corridor which includes proposals for 76 growth locations and 15 big affordable transport infrastructure projects, housing 1 1/2 million.   We didn’t submit an entry to the competition given its narrow brief and short timeframe – we had our eyes on the long game. With the agreement of the NIC to whom the ideas have been presented at a seminar last month these wont be published till after the Budget and the announcement of the strategy.

Having said that the gallery:  All nicely presented, all presenting modern urban design ideas such as Passivehouse, cycle orientated communities etc.  No fault for any of them on that score.  But what must mark the winner out is going beyond that – to meet the competition brief to ‘link infrastructure with placemaking’ – what where and how.

The first thing to say is I dont think any of the entries truly have grappled with the scale of the project.  The brief had a ‘transformational’ growth scenario of +1million dwellings.  This figure is to low based on a major technical error in a background report to the commission by Savills who assumed overspill from London would be absorbed by all regions equally, no it wont it will go mostly to unconstrained areas close to London, rather than in the North Downs or the sea off Gravesend for example.  Calculated correctly, and including second order effects of construction growth  (as included in a brilliant background report by Cambridge Economics) the transformational growth figure rises to +1.5 million (we will be publishing this shortly as part of our MOAN project).

I expected Tibbalds to be the clear favorites, as they have experience of planning at the whole settlement scale wheras two of the shortlisted entrants have never worked beyond the small estates scale.  But sadly there’s was the most disappointing.  The idea of a ‘velocity’ of cycle orientated cities is brilliant, but as a series of two storey villages expanding by organic growth?  This is akin to early 1970s proposals for cycling villages coming out of Centre for Alternative Technology pamphlets.  I a great fan of these dont get me wrong, but this is not a string of rural dutch or Danish villages.  All very inspiring and hygge but totally unsuitable for a corridor housing 1.5million people along a single railway line.  Just do the numbers in terms of transport capacity and land take, land budget and necessary density for walkable communities and you will see it just doesn’t add up with two storey dwellings. You cant meet the competition brief with two storey dwellings as the predominant typology, nor can you justify economically a frequency of service along East West Rail necessary to achieve transit orientated as opposed to car oriented communities,

Turning to Barton Willmore they have presented some good ideas for specific sites in the corridor in the call for sites process, but they were almost as disappointing.

Where will the growth go?  Putting the map upside down doesn’t conceal the lack of proposals.  And a National Park – like the idea for a London National Park city a gimmick that undermines the statutory purposes and protections of actual National Parks.  (the Hobhouse Commission in 1948 did actually propose a worthy  National Park  in the corridor – the Breck’s).

MAE ‘s entry really tackles the brief, connectivity, typology and where growth should go.

It specifies actual locations, like Calvert where East West Rail and HS2 cross  proposed as a new city on the blog several times, and a new north south connection, presumably the restoration of the Great Central Line- which we have championed.  However they needed to do more analysis of the site.  They propose building on the National Trust property of  Claydon House and the adjoining Berwood Forest area which really must be preserved and restored.    It also proposes several other major locations and connections that we have proposed – indeed any experienced regional planner is likely to suggest much the same locations – there is no prize for originality here nor should there be.  It is about securing consensus.  Most importantly they ‘get it’ about scale and capacity uncannily echoing our own ideas about typologies and scale.  Mae must win, they are the only ones approximating a fit for purpose regional vision.

Fletcher Priest focus on Hadenham Thame and for that area alone isn’t bad.   They correctly grasp that the Southern Expressway option is to be preferred and you shouldn’t build along it, that Haddenham and Thame should remain separate and the medieval streets of Hadenham push development in one direction.  What they missed and its a huge omission is that Thame sits on the Old Wycombe line which could easily be restored (as is already proposed to Cowley) as a rail based growth corridor.

Overall the planning firms presented student charette projects whilst the architectural firms presented actual planning proposals, of which only Mae tackled the brief.  Honorable mention to Fletcher Priest.  But none of them really tackle the key planning challenge relating to spatial planning for innovation clusters, the hard choices over infrastructure priorities and how to achieve the necessary scale of housing and the transport capacity to meet that scale.