The brain-belt between Oxford and Cambridge is set to become more than an educational link as national interest in the East-West corridor gains momentum. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) ideas competition to generate inspirational visions for the development of the Cambridge to Oxford corridor is heating up with the winner expected to be announced in November. PBA is part of the shortlisted team collaboration with Fletcher Priest Architects and Bradley Murphy Design and we’re excited to get the opportunity to further develop our initial design concepts.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen development in the East of England happening at a healthy pace. New towns such as Milton Keynes have really come of age, shedding their ‘soulless’ stigma to not only blossom into attractive places to live and work with great facilities but to frequently top Centre for Cities’ league tables for city performance.
Commuting in and out of London from Oxford, Bicester, Bedford, Milton Keynes, Northampton and Cambridge has also hugely improved and journey times reduced, yet the obvious problem of poor transport connectivity between East and West has remained largely unchanged during this period.
In more recent years, our regional teams in our Oxford, Northampton and Cambridge offices have been involved in major development schemes along the corridor such as: Oxford’s new Barton Park residential scheme, the Northern Gateway, Bicester eco-town, Aylesbury Woodlands, Brooklands and Newton Leys in Milton Keynes, Wintringham Park in St Neots, Waterbeach in Cambridge, and the North West Cambridge development - each one will transform its local area fuelling the corridor’s growth trend.
What’s behind this growth in major developments is the area’s strong economy which in turn presents a unique opportunity for investors and developers as the region has critical underlying housing and infrastructure needs all along the corridor. If addressed in an integrated and timely way, this corridor could be the stimulus for economic growth at a transformational level much like the tech corridor along the Thames Valley or even San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. In Phillip Hammond’s first Autumn Statement he talked of the corridor being a “transformational tech-corridor, drawing on the world-class research strengths of our two best known universities.”
As well as the main hubs, such as Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, there are large areas (where there is a void) with great potential for future growth – the area between Bicester and Milton Keynes is one such area, as well as land between Black Cat and West Cambridge, with great potential for further development.
The key to success for all of these new places is in integrating placemaking with infrastructure to get the right blend of housing, employment and facilities with connectivity and ease of movement for all users.
A knowledge zone
Outstanding universities are based all along the corridor including Cranfield University, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, The Open University, Oxford Brookes University, University of Buckingham and University of Northampton. These educational establishments need to be better connected to realise the area’s ambition of becoming a world-renowned hub for education.
From education into employment, the knowledge base continues with the Trinity College founded Cambridge Science Park which has over 100 high-tech firms based in it and an innovation centre at the heart of the cluster. World-leading bio-tech / bio-med companies such as AstraZeneca and GSK are well-established here, and the Cambridge Biomedical campus is on track to becoming one of the leading biocentres in the world by 2020 (source Cambridge Biomedical Campus).
The nature of the corridor’s knowledge-based economy has meant that even in difficult economic times, such 2008 UK recession, the area weathers it well managing to keep growing - Milton Keynes for example is ranked third in the UK for business start ups - which further adds to its attraction for housing and employment.
Building better connections
The Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor stretches over approximately 130 miles around the north and west of London’s green belt. The region is home to 3.3 million people But, along with Northampton, the three centres, are poorly connected with one another.
PBA has worked on many major transport infrastructure schemes in this area, such as our transport strategy work for the North West Cambridge Development which will transform what was previously a highly congested and under-invested transport network. Yet, there remains a huge deficit along the corridor that needs to be addressed in a holistic way - infrastructure between East and West is poor with journey times of up to three hours between Oxford and Cambridge making it quicker to go in and out of London to get from one place to the other.
Road improvements are being made – the completed A421 expressway section (from M1 J13 to A1 Black Cat junction) has enabled growth in Bedford and we welcome improvements outlined by Highways England for the A428 (between Black Cat and Caxton Gibbet junctions) currently out to consultation.
The corridor is not just road but rail too, with the Government having pledged £110m of funding for the East West Rail project to enhance the link between Oxford and Cambridge including a link between Milton Keynes and Aylesbury. An additional £100million of funding is proposed to accelerate building the Western section Oxford-Milton Keynes-Bedford.
Whilst agreement is fairly unanimous on the need to invest in the corridor with collective bodies such as England’s Economic Heartland strategic alliance talking of the need for investment in ‘total transport’, the biggest challenge is always funding. The new expressway road between Oxford and Cambridge for example could cost up to £3.5bn, the Department for Transport has estimated (BBC source) but, according to the NIC, could vitally cut journey times across the corridor by up to 40 per cent.
Cross-boundary collaboration between local authorities and in funding discussions will be key to the corridor realising its full potential and not compromising with selective / smaller delivery projects.
The Government needs to invest substantially in infrastructure to promote long-term economic growth in the area as significant changes to journey times will only be realised with the implementation of this major road and rail infrastructure.
Designing the future
PBA is dedicated to creating better places where people want to live, work and play for the communities in which we work. Our experience of strategic infrastructure and large-scale development management means we can not only help unlock and deliver schemes quickly and efficiently, we can also make the necessary links between developments, highways/transport infrastructure and utilities infrastructure.
This corridor relates very closely to a number of the local authorities who are likely to have to take significantly more housing as a result of the new housing number / OAN methodology, and creates the case ‘in part’ for strategic Green Belt release in some of the more resistant authorities in this part of the world. We see that solving the crucial housing and transport challenges here, in one of the UK’s leading growth regions, will bring tremendous benefit not just to the people who live and work along the corridor but for the UK at large.
We’re also mindful that we need to be designing the corridor now for future modes of travel so that it is compatible with changing travel trends. In our recent Planning, Transport & Development: All Change? publication with the Independent Transport Commission the data shows that over the last 20 years the number of car driver trips made per person per year is reducing in all areas of the UK, whilst rail usage has increased in all areas. Mobility as a Service and driverless vehicles, already being trialled in the UK, will be game changers in the way we travel in the future. Designing a resilient corridor will include questioning how people will move, connect and interact along the corridor in the future and the economy will evolve into a sharing one from skills and knowledge, movement of labour to transport and travel.