The East-West Arc, Re-thinking Growth in the London Region

The East-West Arc spans 30 local councils comprising the growth corridor from Oxford through Milton Keynes and Northampton to Cambridge. Its population of over three million is the fastest growing region in the UK.[1]  See Figure 1. It forms the northern fringe of the greater London city region to which it is profitably tied, just north of the Green Belt. History, knowledge, technology, agriculture and nature combine in a rich tapestry that has long contributed to the commonwealth of the United Kingdom. In a globalizing world where distances of all kinds are slashed, the Arc is more than a key part of the greater London region. It is a gateway north to the Midlands and the Northern Powerhouse.

The Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Gateway is one of the most innovative and dynamic areas of the UK. Its potential is recognised by the government as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the region to become a ‘knowledge-intensive growth cluster, competing globally’. Yet that potential is capped by inadequate infrastructure and expensive housing, as well as ecological constraints. As HS2, along with the train and expressway linking Oxford and Cambridge become realities, this vital region can be seen better as a gateway in all directions, thus helping to rebalance growth across the UK. The day-long symposium on the East-West Arc held at the University of Westminster in June of 2018 addressed these challenges from a range of perspectives.

Traversing the Arc from south to north is the proposed high-speed rail line HS2, as well as the planned east-west expressway and east-west rail line linking Oxford to Cambridge through Milton Keynes. These transport links, taken together, are intended to enhance connectivity, mobility and productivity across the region. This will further boost growth while presenting financing and environmental challenges along with its benefits.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report from 2017, Partnering for Prosperity: A new deal for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc, set out one vision and approach to infrastructure-led development linked to place making. It also set out new thinking on the housing challenge in the region that is equivalent to a new city the size of Birmingham. Other impacts of growth also need to be addressed, such as last mile connectivity and multi-modal transport, social inequities, land consumption of agriculture and forests, greater flood risk, pollution, and loss of ecological function and integrity of historical region including its villages and towns. These are but a few of the impacts that need to be addressed by an assessment of growth scenarios and their impacts, in advance of the foreseen major infrastructure projects.

Government has long recognised the strategic importance of the Arc, and not just to the region itself, comprised of three recently-formed regional growth boards in Milton Keynes, Oxford and Cambridge. Central to the Arc is its relationship to London, the west of England and the synergies with the Midlands and further north. This greater London Region contains the UK’s primary transport hubs and corridors, including the main north-south road and rail routes, together with key international gateways such as Heathrow and Birmingham airports and the seaports of Harwich, Felixstowe and the Thames Gateway in the east. While the long history of this greater region has unfolded piece meal, it is now interconnected into a functioning mega-region that needs a coherent strategy founded by cogent analysis.

In this context, it is critical to envision the East-West Arc as gateway that enables in all directions, and not merely as a self-contained sub-region or as a northern fringe of London.

[1] Cambridge Econometrics and SQW (2016), Cambridge, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Northampton Growth Corridor. Final Report prepared for the National Infrastructure Commission.

City Regions in the 21st Century

City regions dominate human activity on this planet, increasingly so. Current estimates of the planet’s total population of 7.5 billion suggest that between 55% and 85% are urban[1]. In this research project, we investigate their nature, and the nature of their development and outsize domination, in relation to the East West Arc and the Greater London city region.  Their impacts of all types are too big and important to ignore.  In particular, we question the relation of the East West Arc to its surrounds. 

Central to any debate about the future is the very nature of the city region.  That is, how we live and therefore who we are.  What are they and what will they be?  What do we call them?  What images do they conjure?  Will the Oxford Cambridge initiative be seen as a self-contained corridor or a gateway?  What about its links north and to the Midlands and beyond, and south to London?  Is there a new geography taking hold?

World-wide, urban agglomerations are expanding to encompass greater areas and populations, and consuming more resources to support them.  In the UK as elsewhere, these trends are projected to continue into the indefinite future.  Megaregions take the place of old notions of town separate from country, yet the latter persists, both in the popular imaginary and in government arrangements.  This has led to the declining roles of regional planning, spatial strategy, planning and infrastructure.

In terms of guiding their futures, our fragmented landscapes and cities can only mirror fragmented governance, which brings back the question of regional planning and its long tradition in UK.  Will England resume this tradition of leadership in regional planning nearly a century long, and leadership in transport infrastructure two centuries long?  Who are the Patrick Geddes’s, Patrick Abercrombies, and Peter Halls of today? 

Will current bifurcating trends such as increasing wealth and inequality, increasing ecological destruction yet improving quality of life for some persist, or can we change?  Are city regions too complex to govern?  Outstanding questions for research, policy and governance include whether there needs to exist a unitary agency to manage the region and its planning, and what is the nature of the policy to guide its growth and development – such as a spatial strategy or plan.  The projected levels of investment in infrastructure, in housing and in business throughout the corridor, with attendant growth in population and jobs mean that coordinating strategies and investments on this scale is critical.

[1] United Nations and European Union estimates



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