Have your say on the most extensive masterplan for Northamptonshire in a generation

A three-month government consultation about the Oxford-Cambridge Arc is asking residents of Northamptonshire what they want their county to look like by 2050

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc will be the masterplan document for how Northamptonshire develops between now and the next quarter of a century. The concept became a reality after it was adopted by the government following a proposal by the National Infrastructure Commission in 2017.

The idea has been pretty low key over the past two years, with few Northants civic leaders talking publicly about the plan and it rarely being debated by the political parties, but it has now been brought centre stage as the government wants to hear from residents how they think the overarching mega plan for five central counties of England should shape up. 

It says all views will be appraised and then an overarching vision will be published in Spring 2022. Two further public consultations will follow after this one.

What is the Arc?

The Arc encompasses the five counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire and according to the government, the ambition is to develop the area into one of world significance.

It says:

“The Oxford-Cambridge Arc is a national economic priority area. We believe it has the potential to be one of the most prosperous, innovative and sustainable economic areas in the world, and can make a major contribution to national economic recovery as we seek to build back better from the impact of COVID-19.”

The spatial framework (masterplan) will map out the key aspects of the area from how the environment is dealt with to the economy, infrastructure and housing development.

The government says in the past two decades the arc region has grown faster than any other part of the country outside of London, led by the life sciences cluster in Cambridge, the digital innovation boom in Milton Keynes and the innovation of the area’s leading universities. Economic output increased from £81 billion in 2000 to £108 billion in 2018 and it is hoped this will be supercharged further by agreeing aligned, overarching vision for the five counties of the Arc. Sitting underneath the Arc spatial framework plan will be the local plans for individual areas, which have been many years in development by local communities.

Arc facts:

  • The area measures roughly is close to ten per cent of England’s land mass and currently has a population of 3.7m (up from 2.8m in 1991).

  • 76 per cent of the Arc’s area is made up of farmland and ten percent is catalogued as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty

  • There are 31,000 hectares of ancient woodland and 5,700 rivers and streams

  • It has eleven major higher education institutions including world renowned Oxford and Cambridge universities

  • The area has 7,000 listed buildings, 1,700 of which are Grade I listed.

What are the opportunities?

In 2019 a joint declaration between government and local partners, such as local authorities, regeneration agencies, landowners and utility companies, said they would work collaboratively to realise the area’s potential and explore all the options for long term planning.

“These relationships mean that we are not starting from scratch and have an opportunity to build on existing knowledge and evidence,” the government said. 

In March the government had initial conversations with some local residents, community and campaign groups, local authorities, and businesses from across the Arc and said what it was told helped it understand some of the key issues and questions for the consultation. Key findings were:

  • green space, and play and sports facilities are highly valued; 

  • historic and beautiful buildings are highly valued by local residents; 

  • some people welcome new homes and investment in their towns and villages.

The government says improved infrastructure will be a key concern to making the Arc a more prosperous place.

“I​​nfrastructure underpins economic growth, and across the Arc inadequate infrastructure is a key constraint. As such, investment in housing, transport, utility and digital infrastructure will be critical to realising the Arc’s full potential, whilst helping to ensure sustainable growth and resilience to current and future stresses.”

The funding will largely have to come from Government, which says it is considering setting up an Arc Growth Body to coordinate any policies that are eventually put in place.

In this climate change aware time, green policies will need to be at the forefront of development. The consultation asks people for their views and to quantify how important the green and blue spaces in their communities are to them.

Disposing of waste will be a key part of the plan. Currently half of the 1.4m tonnes of waste collected each year across the arc is recycled while the rest goes to landfill. The government says:

“There is an opportunity to support an ambitious and long-term approach to improving regional or even national waste management capacity. Strategic scale growth would bring with it the potential to deliver new Energy from Waste plants that deliver combined heat and power. It may also be that concentrations of new growth aligned with highest standards of waste separation leads to the potential to deliver next-generation recycling facilities. 

What are the issues?

It has long been reported the Arc will deliver one million new homes - although this figure has not been included in this new consultation. But housing, where it is located and its environmental credentials will probably be one of the most controversial strands of the Arc’s masterplan.

The government says in the consultation document: “We are concerned about the affordability and availability of housing in the Arc, and what this will mean for the Arc’s communities, economy and environment. 

Development of new homes is already happening in the Arc, but in the main centres this has not kept up with need. We also know people are being priced out of the area, increasing the need to make more polluting journeys for work and leisure, and making home ownership less likely for many. And we have heard concerns about the quality and sustainability of new development.” 

The loss of green space will also be a controversial point as while the government has said there will be a focus on brownfield development, undoubtedly swathes of agricultural land will be consumed to build the new housing. 

Environmentalist George Monbiot has been highly critical and called the Arc a meglomaniac scheme and accused the government of greenwashing with a PR campaign that has rebranded it as ‘natures arc’. He has also hit out at wildlife trusts who after years of opposing the Arc (largely due to plans for a motorway between Oxford and Cambridge) now appear to be in favour.

The government does admit there are already a number of issues in the area.

It says:

“Air quality is poor in many parts of the Arc, caused in part by high rates of car use, and this is harming the environment and the health of local residents. 

“Flood risk is high and growing, particularly around the floodplains of the Arc’s major rivers. The Arc’s natural environment has declined in quality, and become less connected over the last 40 years, and we know that people’s access to open areas of nature rich countryside can be limited.

“The Arc is also one of the most water stressed areas of the country; which means that sustainable abstraction and water resilience is key to future planning. 

Finally, the impact of COVID-19 has shown the importance of natural green space to healthy lifestyles – but many existing sites of value for nature are already heavily used for a range of recreational activities, which is having a negative impact.”

There are 50 Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) across the Arc - these are places that have air quality issues due to traffic emissions. The several roads that lead into the centre of Northampton, plus the M1 to the south of the town, are two of the AQMAs.

The consultation says:

“​​Current road traffic in urban centres and on the strategic road network is the primary source of harmful emissions leading to air quality problems within the Arc. Exposure to air pollution represents one of the most significant environmental threats to health in the UK, with thousands of deaths a year being attributed to long-term exposure.”

How to get involved

The survey is online and can be filled in here. Leader of North Northamptonshire Council Jason Smithers has urged residents to have a read of the consultation and have their say.

He said:

“The Arc region has the potential to drive significant growth locally and nationally so it’s essential that we seize this opportunity to maximise the possibilities and that North Northants spearheads this change.

“This consultation will measure the opinions of a cross section of people in the area to see what’s important to them and what sort of future they would like to see for our region.

“I would encourage everyone to have their say as it’s essential that we attract the right growth to our area, combined with the proper infrastructure to make it happen.

“Not only are we being asked to feedback on how we can boost the economy and the prosperity that would bring but also on how we connect communities and how they are shaped.

“Underpinning all of this is how we do this in an environmentally sustainable way so that we can preserve the unique character of North Northants and maximise the benefits for residents and businesses.”

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