The potential of The Arc
In March 2016, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), led then by Lord Adonis, called for ways “to maximise the potential of the Cambridge – Milton Keynes – Oxford corridor as a single, knowledge intensive cluster that competes on the global stage.”
He came up with the brainy idea of linking Oxford and Cambridge with a new ‘Varsity Line’ – a track which will arc through five new towns with the capacity for 130,000 new homes. Land buyers are already active, and I thought it would be helpful to look at some of the developments to date.
Commercial developers, land funds and house builders have been scouting the region. And of course, this extremely positive for developments within the arc itself, such as MEPC’s Silverstone Park where Carter Jonas has recently been appointed.
The government backing further endorses this type of offering and should help to attract a wider scope of occupiers for either geographic reasons or the pull of the locally based and highly skilled workforce.
The Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc is home to 3.3 million people. It stretches 130 miles from Cambridge, via Bedford, to Oxfordshire. The population is up 30% since 1990. Housebuilding rates will need to double to cope with expected population growth. Between 2012 and 2015 an average of 12,250 homes a year were built. The NIC say The Arc has the potential to support 1.1 million new jobs, generating £163bn of fresh economic activity. Patience. The Varsity Line won’t open much before 2030, says the NIC and the target date for spanning The Arc with five new settlements is 2050.
Developers, who have known government intentions for at least two years, are eager to option land along The Arc. Nigel Hugill, chief executive of Urban & Civic, was one of the first to take action. He retains good connections across Whitehall, forged from his experience ten years ago as a government housing advisor, after a three-year spell running Lend Lease Europe. On March 8th, three days after the government proposed an Oxford to Cambridge regional planning authority, Urban & Civic announced it had taken options on 785-acres of greenfield land on the Claydon Estate near Calvert in Aylesbury Vale.
As Urban & Civic told the Stock Exchange, “the site adjoins the new High Speed 2 depot where the HS2 line will meet the proposed Varsity rail line, within the Cambridge - Milton Keynes - Oxford corridor, a priority area identified by the National Infrastructure Commission for new housing delivery.” Three days earlier Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced a key modification to the National Planning Policy Framework essentially endorsing the formation of a new planning region. Land deals in what’s becoming known as ‘The Arc’ are now deemed share price sensitive, as the odds-on price rises shorten.
Attention is now centring on five settlements revealed on March 8th, the same date as the Prime Minister’s housing statement. Here more than 130,000 new homes have been sketched on the map. The Commission wishes to capture a fair proportion of the land value uplift to contribute to infrastructure costs. “Public investment in strategic infrastructure (must) not lead to large windfall gains for landowners at the expense of new communities” said Adonis. Government policy won’t crystallise for ages.
But the NIC report is a good guide to how things will develop between now and 2050.