Government responds to the NIC Recommendations for the O2C Arc

Somewhat under the radar, the government published its response to the NIC’s Partnering for Prosperity in the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc report alongside the Autumn Budget papers.

The government’s response document tempers the enthusiasm of the NIC; seemingly neither its language nor its commitments to action reflect the ‘transformational’ ambitions set out in its November 2017 document.  However, there are several points of interest worth noting, not least of which is that government has at last formally recognised a defined geographical area as constituting the Oxford- Cambridge Arc[1].

Statements which do signal the potential for significant changes to be made to current infrastructure projects include a commitment to consider the futureproofing of new infrastructure to allow for future growth in the corridor (EWR/Expressway specification), and the commissioning of a Cambridge corridor study to look at potential rail infrastructure which may be required 2033-2043 in Cambridgeshire, due to be completed by December 2018.

A number of other studies are announced formally in the response.  Some of these have clearly been commissioned to flush out the evidence and test the NIC headline recommendation that the Arc should seek to provide 1M new homes and 1.1 Million new jobs; a headline which has been strongly criticised by some stakeholders as being adopted as a growth target without due consultation and strategic environmental assessment.  The government expects the commissioning of analysis to test and evidence the strategic case for housing growth and explore the potential for new and expanded settlements within the Arc to provide further rationale and justification for the NIC figures, and to inform an “ambitious corridor-wide Joint Vision statement for the Arc to 2050” to be published by Spring 2019.

There are also indications that government is looking at more rigorous powers for local authorities to capture more uplift in land value arising from development: firstly, through endorsing the NIC (and other) recommendations to remove section 106 pooling restrictions and making a commitment to laying down Parliament Regulations to enable this, and secondly, exploring the appetite for locally-led Development Corporations by consulting on draft guidance for use of CPO powers and a legal framework for new town development corporations overseen by local authorities rather than the Secretary of State for HCLG.  The testing of the waters for Development Corporations is furthered through the announcement of a “£10M competitive fund” to support local areas to generate their own proposals for new business-backed Development Corporations or similar.

Interestingly, the response states that “a Ministerial Champion for the Arc is to be appointed to provide further focus and facilitate coordination across Whitehall”.  One might be forgiven for thinking this role is already in place; Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South was appointed by Sajid Javid as the champion for the Corridor in December 2017.  However, as his activities have been remarkably low key in this regard over the last 12 months this announcement may signal a change in personnel, or indeed, a higher profile for the role going forward.

The Government have not accepted all the NIC recommendations.  The future creation of a “pan-Arc” independent design panel for strategic infrastructure such as EWR and the Expressway, or for new/expanded settlements, has not been accepted; instead, government favours working with those existing design bodies already in place.  This decision aligns with the emphasis on driving forward ‘locally-led’ plans for growth within the Arc, but does suggest that the importance of bringing together much more integrated design solutions to link road/rail infrastructure with development at the strategic level is not fully understood.

With regard to joint spatial plans, Government remains ambivalent about directing authorities to join forces in strategic plan making at this point in time and instead only “urges authorities in the Arc to work together” and “where appropriate”, develop joint statutory plans to underpin the long-term vision for the Arc.   However, the ‘stick’ is still hovering in the background for those authorities who refused to play ball with their neighbours; “where government sees a clear need for doing so, the SoS for HCLG will utilise the powers under S28 A of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to direct local planning authorities in the Arc to undertake Joint Plans”.

It is evident from the response that there has been much discussion going on behind the scenes in Whitehall, and if nothing else, increased cross-Departmental engagement does appear to be surfacing in some of the associated activities and announcements coming from MHCLG in recent weeks.  However, big questions remain over how the circle is going to be squared between the need to secure levels of growth in the Arc not seen since the boom times of previous Development Corporation days whilst at the same time ensuring this growth is “locally-led” and therefore accepted by local communities.


Notwithstanding ongoing consideration of potential local government reform, the government response defines this area as Oxfordshire County Council and the constituent districts, Buckinghamshire County Council and the constituent districts, Northamptonshire County Council and the constituent districts, Bedford Borough Council, Central Bedfordshire Council, Luton Borough Council, Milton Keynes Council, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and the constituent councils.