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Making the Oxford-Cambridge arc a good place to live

Mike O’Sullivan (Former transport and planning cabinet member – Milton Keynes Council) Stony Stratford Milton Keynes MK11
22 June 2018

Peter Kay’s Viewpoint article on life in Essex makes for dismal reading (LTT 11 May). Field by little field, uncoordinated developer-infilling in a low density suburban car-dependent way, and rubber-stamped by local councillors, represents the antithesis of good planning. 

The ‘garden city’ pretence that seemingly informs and justifies this approach has run its course. What we now need is a more sustainable development approach that is essentially urban in character as opposed to suburban with a reliance on various forms of public transport to facilitate internal movement instead of the car. For movement beyond the local sphere the car can still remain an option. 

With interest now cranking-up in relation to the Oxbridge ‘arc’ my concern is that the eventual segments comprising such an arc will amount to nothing more than opportunistic developer-sprawl along the lines of the current Essex model.  

To avoid this there needs to be a concerted planning effort made to deliver a plan that links Oxford to Cambridge via Bicester, Buckingham, Milton Keynes and Bedford in a coherent, attractive and sustainable way. There already exists the skeletal basis for this development thanks to the east-west rail alignment, the radial rail routes to and from London, plus a parallel road system. All that now remains to de done is to put ‘flesh’ on these ‘bones’. The space available along the Oxbridge arc could accommodate the equivalent of ten Milton Keynes, which, if built at double the present residential density of Milton Keynes, could easily accommodate four million new households. 

Directing development here would save many other areas in the South East from being overwhelmed, represent a significant land bank to last us for the foreseeable future, contribute significantly and sustainably to relieving the national housing shortage and, finally, offer an attractive setting within which ordinary mortals could live and thrive.

Bringing all this about suggests that firstly a design brief be established with consultants appointed to convert this into an overall masterplan. To work up the detailed design and oversee the actual delivery of development could call for the setting up of development corporations under the New Towns Act. One would be Oxford-based and deal with expansion leading eastwards from that city, a second would be Cambridge-based and deal with expansion leading westwards and the third would be Milton Keynes-based to organise development on both sides of that settlement and join-up with the other arc elements. 

If we wish to seriously resolve the national housing crisis and offer a model of sustainable urban development then it is time to get our act together and literally build upon the emerging arc infrastructure in the south-east of England. 

The alternative is to opt for a market-determined car-centric unsustainable hodgepodge of development that would dribble on for ever – a sort of ribbon development writ large. Who in their right mind needs that?

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