Next Steps and Some Hard Choices for the Oxford-MK-Cambridge Corridor – Avoiding failing like the Thames Gateway

Part One of a Two Part Post

The Autumn Budget 2017 saw the return of big planning in the shape of the Oxford-MK-Cambridge Study published by the National Infrastructure Commissioned after two years work.   Their remit was never to publish a strategic plan, their remit was infrastructure, however the universal call from consultation was the primary need was to boost new housing, lack of which was the primary restraint on economic growth in the area.  So the recommendation was to integrate new housing with transport investment and significantly increase housing in the area.  With the strategy being taken forward by government supply an overall vision for the corridor with a tier of subregional planning based on city regions such as Oxford – below it.  The timing was ideal – publishing at the time of a Budget flagged as as a budget to boost housing and when the tired treasury tropes – relax green Belt, deregulate planning etc. had either run up against immovable objects or were seen as tired and disappointing.

Reading the reports and final phase background documents on the NIC website it is not hard to cheer openly at many of the comments made, the reports pragmatism, and rare in England its ability to combine thinking about economics, planning and transport in the same document but in a spatial rather than abstract way.

Nonetheless thus is where the hard part begins.

The primary aim must be to avoid problems with previous similar corridor strategies before.  The Arc previously had a stillborn birth over a decade ago.  The Thames Gateway project gradually lost momentum.  The Budget 2017 was not only the deadline for the Ox-MK-Cam but the Thames Gateway Growth Commission launched in June 2016 under Lord Heseltine.   If Gideon’s plan had gone to order we would have had big announcements for both corridors.  Of course Lord Heseltine was sacked  in March.   

He was not replaced and the Thames Gateway Growth Commission has sunk into obscurity.  The Minister of State for Planning is still the Gateway Minister, but the new minister has made no visits or announcements in that capacity.  What was essentially a Thames Gateway reboot is aborted.

There are many lessons from Thames Gateway about what to avoid in Ox-MK-Cam.

It was never a fully developed vision, merely a collation of projects bundled together in an annex to regional strategy and never updated.  I think the lessons from the Gateway are clear.

1.Make the Transport/Planning Integration Decisions up front

The key transport project for the Gateway – Crossrail – wasn’t announced until years after the strategy was launched – by which time it was too late to shape development.  Key opportunities for concentrating development around major nodes – such as in Thamesmead were lost.  HS1 was diverted through the corridor but didn’t stop – except at Ebbsfleet, where with initially development left to the private sector large amounts of permissions were given but few completions.  The private sector being unable to bear the risk of very high density transport orientated development (which we find around the world – Powerpoint cities (existing only on Powerpoints) being the term.  The key decision about the Lower Thames Crossing route has yet to be taken, and four years large areas were blighted by uncertainties over an airport at Cliffe or not.

2.  Making Only the Easy Planning Decisions not the Hard Ones

The government saw it as a fount of easy brownfield decisions.  But large parts of the corridor have few brownfield sites.  Key decisions involving Green Belt – such as at Castlepoint and the expansion of Basildon are still not made.   Decisions about which areas to environmentally protect, such as at Rainham Marshes and Lodgehill were not made up front.

3.  Lack of an Early Environmental Vision and Planning Standards

For many years the DCLG were reluctant to impose any planning standards on the region to avoid reducing housing numbers.  This meant that the corridor quickly gained a reputation for shoddy cheap development that was hard to shake off.  The Green Grid and Green Infrastructure proposals lagged way behind and lacked clear delivery bodies.  The failure to integrate water and environmental issues early on led to an adversarial rather than a create dialogue between environmental and development interests (including government as landowner) on key sites.  It was always obvious from a design perspective that Lodge Hill was only ever going to succeed as a reduced ecologically driven scheme, for example, but here and on other key areas of potential such as Cliffe it became an all or nothing development in full or no development stand off.

4. Delivery Bodies and and Went – Mostly Went

The Gateway was the responsibility of three Development Agencies.  All now abolished, and English Partnerships, who had its regeneration role stripped away under the HCA and now restored as Homes England.  Two development Corporations were formed, then abolished (Thurrock and London Thames Gateway), and then two new ones created (Ebbsfleet and London Legacy).  It is a miracle anything was done.

5.  It Swiftly became a Portfolio of Projects for Ministerial Press Releases not Strategy to be Managed and Delivered.

Over the years, and with the failure to update and expand the original strategy, Gateway documents became increasingly promotional brochures – rather than tracking risks of projects that had fallen behind and wee failing.  It became a creature of fashion and without a champion (Pickles being an Essex Green Belt MP was not championing major development) the local authorities struggled to keep national attention on it. Without major exemplar schemes to point to it became difficult to justify the major investment the area badly needed.

6.  Don’t Neglect Freight

DP World/London Gateway – came along years after RPG9a.  The initial assumption was of a post-ports Gateway rather than one with Ports Resurgent on new modern sites.  As such key decisions on expanding rail capacity for freight and avoiding passenger/rail routing conflicts have not been made.

In the next post ill look at some of the key delivery and hard choices that need to be decided early on in the Ox-MK-CAM process.

 

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