Housing minister Kit Malthouse wrote to local authorities and businesses on 26 July to reiterate the government’s ambition to see one million homes built in the region by 2050.
Malthouse said “detailed analysis” would soon begin to identify sites for new settlements in the corridor and invited councils to submit “ambitious proposals” for growth.
Local authorities were asked to respond with proposals by 14 September. “I want to see swift action”, the housing minister said.
The letter prompted concerns among some councils that local plans could be undermined and that the proposals could see new settlements imposed on the area from central government.
It has since emerged that Rachel Fisher, deputy director for regeneration and infrastructure at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), wrote to councils in the days after the Malthouse letter in an attempt to defuse councils’ concerns.
In an email, understood to have been sent to planning chiefs in the region, Fisher apologised for “any confusion” caused by the letter and for “the delay in sending out this further information”.
“We are aware of concerns which have been expressed about the timings involved”, she said.
Fisher advised that the call for new settlement proposals by 14 September “does not reflect a hard deadline” and said the government sees the invitation as “a very first step in what is likely to be a long term process”.
She acknowledged that developing full proposals before the deadline would be “logistically impossible” and “would not provide the kind of robust proposals which will need to be tested both legally and democratically in the future”.
Instead, she said MHCLG was looking for a “hand in the air” from interested authorities “with an understanding that this does not commit either side to anything concrete at this stage”.
A spokesman for MHCLG said: “We are committed to building the homes our country needs and our Oxfordshire housing deal is an important part of this.
“It is important we plan the homes and transport people need together. We are working closely with other government departments to maximise the potential of the Oxford to Cambridge corridor.”
other councils in the area have raised similar concerns to the two Oxfordshire authorities that the local planning process is being undermined. Jason Longhurst, director of regeneration at Central Bedfordshire Council and chairman of the Central Corridor Group of local authorities in the area, said the call for new settlement proposals “seems slightly out of sync with wanting to have a plan-led approach”. Opening up a separate process to identify sites appears to presume that “somewhere out there someone has forgotten to mention that there is a significant growth opportunity,” he said. Councils are willing to plan for growth, said Longhurst, as soon as they receive clarity from the government over the infrastructure to be provided. “We’re still waiting for a commitment to the expressway and the East-West rail,” he said. “You commit to that and tell us the route; we’ll tell you the potential added value that will bring.”
The route of the new expressway was due to be announced this summer by Highways England but the government agency is now aiming to confirm details later in the year. Both Murphy and
Cox in their letters said any new settlement proposals would need to be informed by the details of that decision and expressed surprise at the government’s call for expressions of interest before the preferred road corridor was known.
Rob Hopwood, planning partner at consultancy Bidwells and their lead on the Oxford-Cambridge arc, said: “How can local authorities identify their local plan allocations then suddenly at the end of this year, there might be a corridor announcement? If that’s different to what their local plans are proposing, they would need to change them.”
Another uncertainty raised by Murphy and Cox in their letters was whether the one million new homes by 2050 “includes the existing ambitious planned housing growth in the area”. A statement from MHCLG to Planning confirmed that the target includes those homes that are “already planned”.
Martin Tugwell, programme director at England’s Economic Heartland, a partnership between councils and local enterprise partnerships in the area, said the ministerial letter was looking beyond current local plan timescales. He said: “There’s clearly a pressure on local authorities to move forward with their local plans and it’s important those local plans get delivered as quickly as possible. The Kit Malthouse letter is looking towards the longer term. The most appropriate way forward for meeting future growth pressures is still something to be debated by partners across the corridor. It might be that new settlements are the way forward but there may also be alternative ways.”
However, central government needed to take a lead on planning for the area, Tugwell added. England’s Economic Heartland has called for a National Policy Statement setting out a strategic plan for the area. “Whilst we share the ambition to recognise the economic potential of the corridor, this requires a long-term commitment from the government,” Tugwell said.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said the call for new settlement proposals represents a step too far, too soon. It believes the case has still not been made for the level of growth proposed by the National Infrastructure Commission and backed by ministers. Paul Miner, head of strategic plans and devolution at CPRE, says: “We don’t really get the sense at the moment that the government has looked seriously at the environmental implications of building one million new houses and a major new road.”
Meanwhile, the many different parties involved in the region’s development and the uncertainty over the timing of both the expressway announcement and the call for new settlements, has led some to wonder who is in charge. Last December, the MHCLG announced that Iain Stewart, the MP for Milton Keynes South, would become the new “champion for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor” though he would not have any decision-making powers. In February, the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Corridor All-Party Parliamentary Group, which Stewart chairs, was launched. However, Stewart has since called for a minister or cabinet member to lead on plans for the growth arc.
Hopwood said: “Of the three or four big issues, leadership keeps coming up. At the top level, we’re not getting anybody.” MHCLG, the Department for Transport, and the Treasury all have a stake in the process, said Hopwood, but it’s not clear who is leading the project. “We need someone to take control.”