Is Regional Planning back – at least for Oxfordshire/Cambridgeshire?

By Richard Anderson

Gestating since the then Chancellor backed in his 2017 budget, the National Infrastructure Commission’s call for 1 million new homes to be built by 2050, the OxCam arc was coined.  How are things moving on 4 years later?

Well, with 4 years of relative silence, in the past few weeks the matter has sprung to a planning life of sorts.  In true planning style (sluggishness) in more true planning style/interference (politics) we now have had sight of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MCHLG) in even more true planning style (lengthy title) “Planning for sustainable growth in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc: an introduction to the spatial framework.”

As an “introduction,” it sets out a “broad vision” and brutally highlights that “There is also no single institution with the necessary competence and authority to lead a coordinated approach.”  Furthermore, “planning at the local level for homes, business space, infrastructure and the environment is not integrated and is unable to take an Arc-wide view.”  So much (or little) for true Localism.  So, with the view that Localism cannot assist here, it jumps up to produce a document which “will have the status of national planning and transport policy, providing a strategic framework for local planning.”  It goes on to pronounce that “local planning authorities preparing local development documents (including Local Plans) will have to have regard to the spatial framework, as they do with other national policies and guidance.” It appears that having proclaimed there is no single institution to lead, MCHLG are now the institution leading to deliver this strategy.

At a practical level, however, it is worth pointing out that whilst MCHLG is now taking the lead, in some parts at least it will not conduct nor deliver.  We have had sight of a procurement paper looking to engage stakeholder consultants to carry out consultation at community, political, commercial and planning levels across the Arc.  The question to be asked is of four named locations (Bedford, St Neots/Tempsford, Cambourne and Cambridge) which (some or all) can develop or expand to take new housing provision.  With a 3-month consultation window and £40-50,000 estimated to be the cost to deliver this mammoth consultation exercise many, like us, will watch from afar to see how this pans out.

However, for the 23 local planning authorities, a Mayoral combined authority and eight transport planning authorities, the message is don’t put the brakes on your local development plan production as they must “continue to develop local plans before the publication of the spatial framework” – confusion in Local Planning Policy teams??

Numbers are important and eye catching/watering (?), “… by 2050 we would see economic output growing by between £80.4 billion and £163 billion per annum, with between 476,500 and 1.1 million additional jobs.  But hang on, a key number is surprisingly absent … that of … housing targets … only stating that the framework will “plan for the right level of growth in the Arc,” and will meet housing needs “in full.”  Is this perhaps the not too distant memory of a housing algorithm levelling up/down, north/south and causing in political terms a car crash resulting in a hurriedly navigated U-turn?

For those of you still engaged/excited (?) by the prospect of regional planning being reinvented, try and do your best to contain your enthusiasm as it has some way to go, namely Summer 2021 consultation, “options,” Spring 2022 with a draft Spatial Framework consultation in Autumn all leading to a final Framework, “shortly after,” meaning (and I can say this having worked in a Government Ministry myself) “when politically expedient to do so.”

Full detail can be found in the “Planning for sustainable growth in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc: an introduction to the spatial framework” …

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