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Oxford-Cambridge Arc

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2021

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.

This is a subject of the most profound importance to the whole of Buckinghamshire, so I am grateful for the opportunity to lead the debate. I convey apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), who is of course on paternity leave. I am sure we all wish to congratulate him on the birth of a child. This is, however, a matter of great importance to his constituents and he has given me a statement, which I hope to get to later. Likewise, I have apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), who is applying his considerable expertise to justice matters in the relevant Select Committee. I also have a statement from him.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) in her place, and I look forward to hearing from her later. For the record, although my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), as a Minister, cannot speak, he is present, because the matter is of close interest to his constituents. We should be in no doubt that the Milton Keynes arc—I have renamed it for him already; I mean the Oxford-Cambridge arc—could transform Buckinghamshire and the other counties that it touches. The principles at stake are of importance to the whole nation.

To give some background, in 2017 the National Infrastructure Commission launched “Partnering for Prosperity: A new deal for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc”. Although the report initially focused on economic development, its focus was moved so that it referred to 1 million new houses as a key enabler for a new geography known as the arc. That would, of course, be a profound quantity of houses to put in that area.

There has never been satisfactory clarification of the requirement for 1 million houses mentioned in the report, or any further details about potential housing targets. I am told by my county council that the housing numbers that the Government linked to the arc have not been informed by local discussion or input, and that has contributed to local concerns about a lack of autonomy and local determination. In addition, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government commissioned AECOM to produce work to show where land was unconstrained and new settlements could be built across the geography. That work, again, did not seek local input from councillors or MPs, and it has not been formally shared or published.

The National Infrastructure Commission report shifted the emphasis on regional collaboration away from an economic driver to introduce housing as the focus; that is the real sense in Buckinghamshire Council. It crossed over the work that was already under way from England’s Economic Heartland, a collaborative strategic regional body focused on connectivity and economic growth, although the NIC arc covers a slightly different geography that is narrower than the area considered by EEH, which also includes Swindon and Hertfordshire. The key concern, however, and the thing to which I draw attention, is the prospect of 1 million houses coming into our counties.

I turn to engagement with local authorities. An arc leaders’ group was established in about 2017 as a coalition of the willing, although it went on to endorse joint declarations with Government that were signed by its chairman and announced without discussion with its membership. In the spring of 2020, changes to the governance of the leaders group were announced, shifting decision making to a majority-rule approach and away from the unanimous consensus under which the group had been established. That puts Buckinghamshire at a significant disadvantage. As a unitary, it has just one vote among 25 other local authority votes across the area. Oxfordshire, as a county council with five district or city councils, would have six votes.

Alongside those challenges in governance, the leaders group, without the endorsement of all the relevant local authorities, pushed through a measure to develop a regional spatial strategy, which is now frequently referred to as a spatial framework. Although that framework was set out as non-statutory, it has been made clear that Government intend to publish it and that in local planning decisions, similar weight is to be attributed to it as to the national planning policy framework. The arc spatial strategy would be a material consideration in the development and examination of local plans, and that raises concerns that it could be used as a vehicle to dictate housing growth in a way that undermines local decision making.

Of course, the initial attraction of all that was the prospect of central Government investment in infrastructure —that is needed in our area, as it is in so many places—but there are significant concerns. In August 2020, Buckinghamshire informed the Government that it could not continue to be part of the arc. This withdrawal was supported by and followed by the Buckinghamshire local enterprise partnership and the Buckinghamshire universities. Buckinghamshire has instead pursued a policy of developing its own more focused and ambitious recovery and growth proposal, which builds on the place-based approach, with the coterminosity of the council with its LEP, the business representative organisation Bucks Business First, the NHS clinical commissioning group, the hospital trust, and the voluntary and community sector. The point is that we have a county and it works—including Milton Keynes, at times—and we are very proud that it does so.

I will go through four of the key concerns before I turn to statements from my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury and for Buckingham. First, the political case for the arc has not been made. The initiative to establish the arc was not agreed locally; it has always been driven from the top down and there is significant local opposition, not just from Buckinghamshire communities but from community groups throughout the arc. Democratically, communities across the arc have made their views known in recent elections. In some cases, I am sorry to say, where candidates have run on an anti-arc platform, local authorities have flipped from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, including several authorities in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the Liberal Democrats are up to their necks in the arc? They have people on standing committees, they have England’s Economic Heartland and they have the control of this process, and they have nothing more to offer than anyone else.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Although he tempts me to elaborate on the points he makes, I hope that he will forgive me if I do not especially attack the Liberal Democrats in the absence of anyone to reply on their behalf—but I note their absence from this debate. Two months ago, communities in Chesham and Amersham notably sent this message in a startling by-election result. The point is that the Government are taking a top-down approach in imposing the arc, and they seem to be doing so without the effective engagement of the people in the area. Those people are pushing back, and quite right, too. I recall that in 2010, when some of us were elected and the Conservatives came to power, we abolished regional government. This is perhaps a point I will return to: having abolished regional government, we now seem to be, in a sense, reinstituting it through the arc.

Secondly, there are profound issues with local democratic accountability. Our council could find other local authorities and partners taking important planning decisions that are of the most acute interest to our residents, and imposing them on Buckinghamshire. Those decisions have the potential to be significant, generational and, crucially, permanent ones, such as on the suggested new settlements in Bucks, on the imposition of local development corporations and on the imposition of major new and unwanted infrastructure, such as the recently withdrawn expressway. That is the second key point—local accountability.

Thirdly, there are top-down housing targets. I have perhaps said enough about the idea of 1 million houses, but it seems to us that there is now is pressure for overflow from London. What is to become of our area and our beautiful region? My constituency consists of areas of outstanding natural beauty where it is not built on, plus the airfield. These are beautiful parts of our country. Enormous amounts of housing being put in there as overflow from London will cause major protests from the public, and quite right, too.

Fourthly, the spatial strategy for the arc appears to sit above local plans developed by the local planning authority. The interrelationship of the spatial frameworks with existing planning responsibilities is unclear, but it appears to insert this additional and more regional layer of government over what local authorities are doing. Framework proposals would need to be incorporated into new local plans or the plans could risk being found to be unsound, which would have real meaning for the ability to carry forward plans that met with democratic consent.

Those are my four key points. Colleagues have said to me in passing—perhaps some will say this in detail today —that there is a real problem of co-ordination. Before I come on to my colleagues’ statements, I say in passing that of course there is a problem with co-ordination. With great respect to the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), whom I will call my hon. Friend as he is sitting on my side of the House today, whenever big Government choose to plan society and the economy and to impose conditions and development top down, there is always a co-ordination problem. That is why some of us believe in the spontaneous order of the market, but that is not the fundamental point of today’s debate.

I want to put on record a statement from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, who says:

“Buckingham is well-placed to benefit from the Arc’s potential. But we, like our neighbours, must first address the rapidly deteriorating state of our local infrastructure. We have been hit hard by the construction of HS2 and multiple housing developments. Central government must realise and compensate for the damage that HS2 and other high-volume construction projects are causing.

The success of the arc locally depends on the delivery of ongoing local infrastructure projects—above all the Aylesbury Spur of East West Rail. With continuing uncertainty surrounding the spur’s implementation, my constituents and local businesses are growing increasingly anxious. A fast and efficient connection to both the county town”—

I should just add that I have always felt that High Wycombe was the county town, but I am advised otherwise—

“and beyond, is pivotal for realising the economic growth inherent in the Arc’s strategy. The Aylesbury Spur of East West Rail must therefore be built.

It must also be said that we have taken our fair share of housing. Housebuilding targets must be spread fairly and must take into account the tremendous amount of available brownfield land.”

That is the statement from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has asked me to say:

“Buckinghamshire has withdrawn from the Oxford Cambridge arc and has presented to MHCLG an ambitious recovery deal based on local devolution, which I wholeheartedly support. The council in conjunction with the Bucks LEP believe this deal will achieve the benefits of the arc but with local decision making remaining in local hands.

The proposed spatial framework has caused considerable concern in Aylesbury for an area already saturated with strategic infrastructure projects and housing development. By retaining decision making in Buckinghamshire, the recovery deal would represent the strategic aims of MHCLG and ensure local democracy.”

Saving the contribution that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield will make in a moment, I come on to our ask as Buckinghamshire MPs and for the council. We are not anti-growth; of course we accept that housing growth will continue at already high rates, and I particularly want sympathetic development for people in my area who desperately need a home to own. However, it must have local consent, and the targets must be determined and led locally.

In conjunction with our partners, we have already put forward an ambitious recovery and growth proposal to the Government, as I have mentioned. We urge the Government to work with Buckinghamshire Council to progress this bottom-up, democratically driven approach to creating jobs and economic growth, rather than the top-down targets imposed within the structure of the arc and its strategic spatial strategy.

I conclude by saying how much I look forward to this debate, which is overwhelmingly among hon. Friends. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will not mind me saying that I look at the matter with a spirit of some disappointment. He and I were elected to this place in 2010 enthusiastically looking to reform the planning system and to abolish regional government, so I hope he will not mind me pointing out that we now seem to be reinstituting it by other means. I do not think this is going to meet local concerns at all.

As somebody who represents a constituency adjacent to Chesham and Amersham, I really do think this is a moment to think again; to respect the rights of property holders in our area and the needs of those who would like to buy a house; and to make sure that people have incentives to say yes to development, but also the opportunity to say no. I look forward to a think-tank paper, which I hope I have catalysed, which will set out those ideas in more detail, and I hope in due course my right hon. Friend will feel able to look at it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for securing this debate, which is very appropriate for not only those from our county, but those from adjacent counties as well. I pay special tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is here to show solidarity and concern for his local residents. He is an MP, and our only Minister, who continues to put the needs of his residents first. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) for their contributions.

May I start by inviting the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), to take a special trip to south Buckinghamshire? There is no better way to understand the complexities of what we are discussing in this debate than to visit and see at first hand what things are like in places such as Denham, Iver, Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross and Marlow. We would love to have the Minister, and I think he might enjoy the trip.

In addition to what my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has already alluded to, I would like to speak about the Oxford-Cambridge arc, the spatial framework and what appears to be a top-down housing target. Housing numbers are clearly the primary objective for establishing the arc and a token account is paid, through various vision documents, to innovation, environmental improvements or other place-based factors. However, it is unclear why the arc would be a key enabler for these in preference to working on a cross-boundary basis with existing strategic authorities, as initiated by England’s Economic Heartland.

I mention England’s Economic Heartland because Bucks, and particularly south Bucks, has the highest level of entrepreneurs, small business owners and self-employed people in the whole country. We are an economic powerhouse, and we will be so particularly after covid and the covid recovery. We are very focused on economic growth, job creation and vital infrastructure in Bucks. The housing will follow that, but we need to get the fundamentals right.

Local communities fear—as do I, as the local MP—that when that is combined with the changes to planning regulation, proposed planning regulation or the use of the old housing need algorithm, we will not be able to cope with the housing numbers that are placed on us. That is true of places across my constituency, but Bourne End and other towns have already seen the effects of over-development where all strategic green space and common land have already been given over to developers.

The spatial framework is something that I object to. With the existing planning responsibilities, it is unclear, as it appears to insert an additional layer of Government direction on housing and potential economic development. The framework proposals would need to be incorporated into new local plans, or the plans would risk being found unsound. Without a democratic mandate and with the possibility of facing strong opposition from local groups and planning authorities, it is unclear how these proposals would move forward. We do not have the strategic oversight of the London plan or a mayoral structure that has devolved power, so who would be accountable for this democratically unelected right to impose on us?

My hon. Friend has put her finger right on the heart of it. In other areas where they have these grand regional plans, there is a regional identity and a democratic personification of that in a regional Mayor. We do not have that in the Ox-Cam arc, do we?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Although I am not advocating any more devolved power, if people in London and the west midlands do not like the strategic framework, they can at least vote the Mayor out. That is not the case here, and we have some of the most economically valuable land in the country. Covid has only shown how valuable and desirable our part of the country is to live in. People want to move from London to south Bucks. My fear is that the housing numbers and the algorithm set will just meet the housing demands of London rather than meeting the needs of local residents, who are desperate for more infrastructure, GP surgeries, better roads, better wi-fi connectivity and the basic amenities already afforded to London residents. Again, I would welcome the Minister visiting and touring south Bucks to see the unique perspective and challenges that we face.

I ask the Minister and the Government to support the alternative Buckinghamshire approach. Buckinghamshire and its council are not anti-growth. It is accepted that housing growth will continue at already high rates. However, those targets should be determined at local level. Bucks, in co-operation with its LEP, Buckinghamshire Business First, and health partners already put forward to Government an ambitious recovery and growth proposal. Discussions on that have commenced.

We urge the Government to work with Buckinghamshire Council to progress this bottom-up, democratically driven approach, to accelerate jobs, infrastructure and economic growth, rather than follow top-down and imposed targets within the structure of the arc or strategic framework, without democratic accountability. We have seen examples of how well we can work together, because every single week those partners were working and talking together during covid, to deliver the covid response effectively for Bucks residents. I believe we can move forward with an economic recovery plan for Bucks and Milton Keynes.

I have a few questions for the Minister, based on concerns residents have continually raised with me, about housing numbers and demands. The concern from residents across south Buckinghamshire is that more people from London will come to Beaconsfield, Marlow and Gerrards Cross, and the vital housing of bungalow-style, single-storey homes for older residents or the children of Bucks residents who are desperate to get on the housing ladder, will not be provided. If a percentage of housing were allocated only to Bucks residents, that would go a long way in securing more local support on the ground.

Do the millions of homes mentioned as part of the arc factor into the existing extremely high housing numbers already proposed in Buckinghamshire, or will they be additional numbers imposed on us at some point? How up to date are the data that inform the supposed need for the arc in the first place, given that covid and Brexit have changed the numbers and demands for inner London, outer London and surrounding green belt areas? Is the demand still the same as it was before?

With yet more pressure being put on Buckinghamshire, we require more protection for our green spaces, which have been left, unlike in London, without the expected levels of protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has AONB land, as has the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green). I have nothing, apart from Burnham Beeches, which is run by the City of London. I do not have a lot of common land that is protected. We do not have metropolitan open land, because that is an inner green belt protection.

There are basic statutory protections for existing green space that we do not have in my constituency. Most of our green belt land is agricultural green belt land, which is owned by independent farmers or the council. That is problematic for development because it can be sold off piecemeal, and whole areas of biodiversity and vital areas of green infrastructure will be lost for ever, because there is not strategic oversight or protection put in place on that land.

Many other members of the arc have that protection, but south Buckinghamshire does not. As the local Member of Parliament, I want to fight to ensure that existing green spaces, biodiversity and protection for the lungs of London are in place for future generations. The relentless expansion of development into the lungs of London will have a dire consequence, not only for Buckinghamshire but anyone in outer London who values decent air quality, lower carbon emissions and a better quality of life.

My hon. Friend reminds me of a discussion we had about the way that housing is built. Will she agree that it is really important that, when housing goes in, sufficient green space exists through developments, so that people can still feel that they are getting the benefits of the environment and an environmental amenity, even in the places right where they live?

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. I thank the Minister and Government for initiating new nature reserves and the rewilding of areas such as Buckinghamshire, where we need to preserve green space, while adding strategic housing development. I welcome those excellent proposals and I am looking forward to working with the Minister on how we can take them forward in the county.

I would like to see a focus, particularly in Buckinghamshire, on biodiversity and on protecting the wild spaces, waterways, ancient woodlands, marshlands and meadows of south Buckinghamshire. The economic, ecological and environmental vandalism of proposals, done piecemeal, by predatory development, forgets the key and most beautiful part of living in south Bucks—the green space, the rolling hills and the quality of life that residents choose to have. Perhaps it is further from London and a longer commute, but residents are paying the price because they want to have that green space. I cannot express the value that every resident in Buckinghamshire places on that green space. They will fight to the death to maintain it and save it, not only for their community but for future communities. I as their MP will do the same.

I hope that the Minister will continue to look at alternative ways of incorporating new innovation that the Government is proposing for environmental biodiversity. First, the Government could perhaps include the Colne Valley Regional Park and Burnham Beeches in an expanded AONB or a national park, or they could find another way of providing additional protection when more housing demands are being put into the local area. If those things can be done in tandem with a locally led approach that values the opinions of residents in the county, we can move forward in a positive way, meeting the demand for housing but also preserving our green belt and green space and to build the infrastructure that we vitally need for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for introducing the debate. It might be understood from his opening remarks that Buckinghamshire is the only place that is affected by and concerned about the arc, but that is not true. Oxfordshire is just as affected by it and just as concerned about it.

I want to start off with the example of the Oxford to Cambridge expressway, which was an essential part of the arc. That major infrastructure project was handled in the most abysmal way that I have ever seen. From the very beginning, nobody was consulted about it. In my own area, which had a large part of it, I was the first person to bring consultation on the arc to the parish councils in my area: I invited my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) to come with me and address them all at a meeting. By that stage, it was already too late. People had already formed their opinions on the expressway, based on misconceptions and information that came from nowhere. Most of that was wrong, as my hon. Friend was able to point out, but by that stage it was too late.

The other thing that I particularly stress about the expressway shows what could happen with the arc: from one end of the expressway to the other, from the Cambridge end to the Oxford end, there was an enormous difference. At the Cambridge end, most people accepted the need for an expressway to carry the traffic. From Milton Keynes to Oxford, there was no acceptance; there was a completely different attitude. Not once did I hear the Department for Transport, which was responsible for it, making sure that that distinction was well understood. If we are not careful with the arc, unless we go out of our way to make sure that we do things in a different way, we will end up facing similar problems. There is no doubt that road traffic is an issue that needs to be addressed.

With the expressway, we had the ridiculous situation that the whole project was initially paused. That created enormous problems for me electorally. What is the difference between pausing something and abolishing it? It did not make any sense. People were saying that they did not believe it had just been paused; they thought it was just temporary, to take the election into account. It was very difficult to overcome those objections at the time.

The expressway has now been cancelled and the explanation given by Highways England is that it needed the information in order to be able to look at other projects in the area. Why could it not have said that at the very beginning? Why could the whole of the project not have been dealt with in a different way?

I turn to some of the points that have been made about the arc. What is the arc? In the Government’s paper on the arc, it notes that the body that is being put together to try to push it through is made up of three county councils, 17 district councils, six unitary authorities and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. That is before we take into account any involvement of different Government Departments. The Minister is an excellent Minister, but he cannot handle all Government Departments at the same time. There needs to be involvement from other Government Departments to make sure that the project works, but that means that the body becomes overwhelmingly large and very difficult to control, which goes completely against the project with which I was involved when I first joined the House—our localism agenda. I still think that localism and involving local communities in the development of projects is a good place to start.

I have been critical of the arc project, but I see the potential in joining up 10 universities or colleges along the route of the arc. I see the potential in joining up things such as Harwell in Oxfordshire with the equivalent in Cambridge and I see the enormous benefit in trying to line up the fusion project in my constituency at Culham, to hopefully provide the energy and critical science that comes from that across the whole of the arc, but I go back to what I said about the expressway—there is no common identity across the whole arc on which a common strategy can be based, which makes it very difficult.

On the 1 million houses, it would be nice to hear from the Minister how that number is made up. At the time the plan was put forward, I tried to analyse where those 1 million houses were going to come from. Some—in fact, the vast majority—are already in local plans; it is not a million new houses that are being imposed on the area, but a million houses in total, some of which are already there and about to go for planning permission. How is the number made up? What additional housing is left and how will that be dealt with?

I do not take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe that most of the housing is directed towards London. There is a very good aim in trying to make sure that most of the housing picks up local development and local growth. The risk is that it will become so attractive to people from London that it will be very difficult to keep that aim going.

I want to ask a little more on the spatial framework. How is it going to work? What rights will local people have to be able to assess the projects that are being put forward? What criteria will they use to judge them? Who will make the decisions about planning issues and what sort of consultation will they have? Without those things, we will have lost a huge element of our localism agenda, which, for me, would be a great loss. I have put a lot of effort into that agenda over however many years have passed—it is a long time—since I first started, so it would be nice to know whether we are keeping some of it and can use it as the basis to make something happen going forward.

To conclude, I see potential in establishing a brilliant arc of science and engineering across that part of the UK, but we need a properly balanced assessment of what that will involve and of the losses that will come out of it for people. As my hon. Friends have already mentioned, these are some of the most sensitive and beautiful landscapes in the country. Think of how Buckinghamshire rolls into Oxfordshire: it is a seamless entity of nothing but beauty. We trash that at the risk of our future as a Government in this country.

Thank you, Sir Edward. I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for proposing this timely and important debate on an issue that will have significant implications for Northampton, the town that I represent.

Northampton, and indeed Northamptonshire, are a key part of the Oxford-Cambridge arc. Although Northampton may not have the international kudos of Oxford or Cambridge, let alone High Wycombe, it is none the less a vital component of this overall ambitious investment plan.

The Oxford-Cambridge investment arc has, at least, the potential to boost recovering growth in my constituency. Covid-19 has underlined the UK’s position as a global leader in the life science industry, and the Ox-Cam arc could be the investment accelerator that will help to create the infrastructure to prevent it from being strangled by its own success. Northampton is the home of Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA. It is within a 75-minute drive of the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Cranfield, which I was privileged to visit just last week to meet the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership, another critical piece of the structural jigsaw.

Northampton is a prime location, at the hub of the British strategic supply-chain network, for life-science and engineering businesses. The arc programme provides an opportunity to further realise that and, critically, to address the levelling-up agenda that the Government are championing. Northampton has a rich industrial heritage with great past glories—of which, incidentally, shoes and footwear were just part—and we must now focus our attention on the future of the industries that we do so well here, such as life sciences and high-performance technology. We do not just want the houses therefore; we want the business and the infrastructure from the programme as well.

The all-party parliamentary group on devolution, which I chair, recently produced an inquiry report on levelling up and devolution. Although all that I have heard about the Ox-Cam arc programme—including from my right hon. Friend the Minister—marks it out as ambitious and far reaching, it can also be complex and difficult to navigate, with its plethora of overlapping decision-making bodies—councils, LEPs, the central area growth board and the arc. How, where and with what legitimacy the programme’s decisions are made will be critical to its success. I say that with particular feeling as the first elections for the new unitary authority of West Northamptonshire, under the leadership of Councillor Jonathan Nunn, have just taken place. In our APPG’s report, we concluded that the UK is:

“one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the world and we should look to learn lessons from our international partners, many of whom are governed successfully with a more decentralised model. The UK also has one of the most regionally unequal economies in the world. Greater devolution of responsibility for local economic growth has long been necessary, but it is now extremely urgent.”

There is an opportunity, therefore, to use the Ox-Cam arc not only to recalibrate our economic fortunes but to rewire and improve the way that we make those decisions. To me, that means powers from Whitehall and those formerly held at Brussels—as my years on the European Committee of the Regions followed by years on the Committee on Regional Development of the European Parliament as an MEP have informed me—coming down closer to the people of the area. If that is what this means, then it is generally welcome. However, if it also means powers taken away from local government upwards and outwards to new regional structures—again, informed by my past as a county council leader, regional assembly member and a founding director of a local enterprise partnership—I would be much less happy about that.

The formal consultation on the Ox-Cam arc is about to begin. Details of the levelling-up agenda are about to emerge, into which the promised devolution Bill has either been folded or—let us hope not—buried. So my challenge to Government is to bite the bullet and transfer some of those distant Whitehall decision-making powers into the hands of local leaders, and that way unleash the potential of the Ox-Cam arc into something far more wide-reaching that will truly power the pistons of the levelling-up and devolution agendas in our country.

Very easily, Sir Edward. It is a pleasure to have a chance to contribute, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on securing the debate. If I may, I shall start with one of the points that he raised. Coming in as a Member of Parliament in 2010, we thought we were burying regional development agencies in the east of England, one of which was the East of England Development Agency. However, if one looks to the origins of the Oxford-Cambridge arc idea, essentially it is a regional development corporation idea: it stems from 2003, during the Blair period. It was given body and voice by the 2017 National Infrastructure Commission report by Lord Adonis—another leading figure of that period of government.

The first—and fundamental—question that has been raised by other Members during the debate is that this is a plan for an area that has no cohering identity. I almost feel like an interloper, Sir Edward. Before your inclusion of me in the debate, I felt like an interloper anyway, given the strong Buckinghamshire feeling about the debate —and all praise to Buckinghamshire. I am proudly from Bedfordshire and represent North East Bedfordshire. However, that makes the point, does it not? Essentially, this is not some grassroots, built-up, passionate call for helping our region to develop and unifying us into an identity that can have meaning for people on the ground—our local residents. No, no: this is a Blairite top-down plan, to be imposed on people in the region whether they like it or not.

I say “whether they like it or not” because, rather sadly, the spatial framework, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) spoke about, takes that additional step forward. It says that the arc’s 23 local planning authorities cannot continue to plan separately because

“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.”

Well, my constituents do not want local planning to take an arc-wide view; they want it to take a local view—a neighbourhood view. The Government need to understand that the question that has been posed today is, how is that going to work when there is an absence of democratic accountability?

It is worse, because the spatial development framework goes on to say that all local plans must conform to the spatial framework, including the requirement that housing needs are met in full. Out of the window goes any discretion on housing growth targets. They must be met in full. For local authorities in my constituency, who are already achieving growth rates in housing well above the national average—my constituency is already growing at three times the national average—having a top-down target imposed with no discretion on local authority housing growth seems to me to raise major questions about democratic accountability.

Let us go to the two fundamental points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe. Where did this come from? Was it a plan for housing or a plan for economic development? If it was a plan for housing, let us get to the rub of the 1 million houses. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will say in a few minutes that the 1 million housing target is not a target. I know he will say that, because he has told me that in a debate, and it will be welcome to hear. The truth of the matter is that that target at the time included more than a quarter of a million extra houses that were going to be placed into the Oxford-Cambridge arc because that aspiration could not be met in London. It is an important point of principle of this Government to ensure that the housing needs of areas such as Greater London are met by regional authorities themselves and not displaced to other areas.

On housing growth, I would like to hear from the Minister what balance the Government will be able to provide for housing growth with the pieces of infrastructure that people care about. We have heard about expressways and railways, but what people care about in terms of infrastructure is: can I get an appointment with my doctor because my child is sick? Can I get my son or my daughter into a good local school? That is what people want to hear across the Ox-Cam arc and in the rest of the country. I know that the Minister and the Government are committed to that, but that is where our priorities should lie when we think about what to do with this particular region.

If the plan is an economic one, let us remember what the basis of it was: that somehow, by connecting or improving the connections between two major universities and other universities—of course, I would say Cranfield is also a major university, but let us say Oxford and Cambridge—we would unlock economic growth. That is the state-driven answer to how we unlock growth: “We can connect it.” So let me ask the Government: where is the international example of that having worked in practice? Can they name one example anywhere in the world where countries have joined universities to create economic growth? I bet they cannot, because most countries understand that we create economic growth around centres of educational excellence. We focus on the centres of educational excellence and build out that network of localities and business parks and innovation around where that core of academic excellence is. That is already happening in Cambridge, it is happening in Oxford, and it can happen around Cranfield. That is where the Government’s focus with the Ox-Cam arc should be moving.

There are some shared interests. There is the opportunity for more growth in housing. The Minister is absolutely right to focus on the core fundamental Conservative principle that everyone at every age should have the opportunity to own a home. That is something that we all want to do, and we want to do it in a way that is supported by local communities.

On the infrastructure, my colleagues from Buckinghamshire have already said bye-bye to the expressway, so we will have an expressway from Cambridge through Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes, and then we can stop off and get on—I do not know what they have in Buckinghamshire—perhaps a dirt track until we reach Oxfordshire, and back on the expressway again.

Heaven knows what will happen to the railway line. I know that the people of Cambridge are up in arms about it, and I know there are questions in North East Bedfordshire about it. If those transverse cross-country pieces of infrastructure are called into question, should we not have a rethink about how this interlacing, connecting Ox-Cam arc strategy would better be replaced with a central specific focus around certain areas for development there? There is probably more of a community interest between the good people of Buckinghamshire and the good people of Oxfordshire, and there might be a good common interest between the people of Bedfordshire, Milton Keynes and Northamptonshire, rather than saying that people in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough should somehow feel an affinity with the people of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Alluding to the history between Oxford and my constituency, we were the first stop-off on the coach trip from London to Oxfordshire. The economic prosperity of Beaconsfield was built on providing meals, entertainment, hotels and livery to those making the vital trip from London to Oxford. There is that historic link, but my hon. Friend is right that the Oxford-Cambridge arc is not attributable to any of those historic qualities or natural linking that might be found in other regions.

My hon. Friend is right to bring in that historical perspective. Sir Edward, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister if we can have a Conservative vision of the Oxford-Cambridge arc? Let us not just take the Blairite vision off the shelf and say that the Government must now impose it.

What would a Conservative vision look like? First, it would be grounded in local democratic accountability, at the lowest possible level, with parishes, neighbourhoods and towns making decisions and not having them dictated by the state. Secondly, it would be a vision that rested primarily on the private sector to determine what would happen and where, and ensure both business and housing growth. We have recent evidence of that. According to Property Week, last year the Oxford-Cambridge arc was already seeing the largest inward housing investment. The market is working it out; we do not need a Government top-down plan to do it.

Thirdly, there is a role for Government in co-ordination, which we can understand, but the focus should be on international examples that can be repeated here, rather than trying to create something that has not got any international power and saying, “Let’s try and make it work here.” That means creating a focus of innovation with innovation grants and support in towns and cities across the arc.

There should be a focus on green transport initiatives and commuter transport initiatives, getting people from Cambourne into Cambridge in a green and environmentally sound way that works with the flow of people, building communities around Cranfield that work on unmanned vehicles, and undertaking initiatives around large public bus transportation systems in Oxfordshire, which are based on electric or battery-powered vehicles. Working with local councils to find out what people need locally, in combination with innovation and support from the Government, will allow the brains in those cities to create new champions who can create examples for the rest of the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on securing today’s debate. I welcome the opportunity to debate the future of the Oxford-Cambridge arc and follow the lucid arguments advanced by the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), for Henley (John Howell), for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) and for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller).

I have very happy associations with both Oxford and Cambridge, having had the pleasure of living in both cities for a couple of years. I took my MSc in applied statistics at Oxford University and my MPhil in history at Cambridge University. I love both cities and their surrounding areas, and care about their distinctive character, history and future development.

However, the plans for the Oxford-Cambridge arc are already outmoded. Events have overtaken plans drawn up in a markedly different age. Covid-19 has challenged the assumptions that underpinned the Oxford-Cambridge arc back in 2016, which was based on a model of building 1 million new homes, along with a road and rail transport system to take people to places of work at various points across the arc. My first question for the Minister is whether Her Majesty’s Government have properly re-evaluated the assumptions underpinning the scheme, not just on population growth but on changes to patterns of commuting and working, and where people will be working in the future, to ensure that plans meet the needs of residents?

The spatial plan consultation, for example, should cover whether there is a need for genuinely affordable and social environmentally-sound housing; I believe there is. Local authorities should be given proper representation within the arc arrangement. I have discussed these important points with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), the chair of the Labour party, who, fighting assiduously for her constituents as usual, has already met the Minister and his officials and has written to him. Although she could not attend today’s debate, I hope that her invaluable input will not be ignored, but instead incorporated into Government plans. Local people, businesses and leaders cannot be ignored. Proper consultation must be guaranteed.

We recognise the need for more homes, but have Ministers thought through the implications of 1 million new homes and the impact on existing communities, on the natural environment, on biodiversity and on levels of pollution? If we build 1 million homes, how do we balance the needs of the local environment? What kind of homes? We need homes for young people, just starting out, and homes for nurses, teachers, train drivers, supermarket workers and social carers—in other words, homes for the heroes of the pandemic. Where is the plan for affordable homes for those heroes? In all candour, I tell the Minister that the blue wall will not be happy if he ignores their views, as we have heard eloquently, again and again, from hon. Members today.

Then there is the question of transport. Central to the Government’s version of the Oxford-Cambridge arc will be the expressway, a massive motorway-building project, like something from the 1970s or 1980s. I welcome the Minister’s decision to scrap the expressway and I praise campaigners who fought so hard to make Ministers see sense, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who rightly called it

“a last-century approach to a 21st-century challenge”.

Yet again a Conservative Government is catching up with Labour policy, but dither, delay and retreat on the expressway cannot be replaced by dither and delay on the Oxford-Cambridge rail link. The Government must now give their full-throated support to the completion of phases 2 and 3 of the East West Rail link, linking Oxford, Bicester, Winslow, Bletchley, Bedford, Cambourne and stops along the way to Cambridge.

That investment in the railway is a superb opportunity for world-class station design and facilities for passengers; for full access for people with disabilities; for integrated transport systems linking up walking, cycling and bussing; for affordable spaces for local businesses and traders; for flexible ticketing and sensible pricing; and for environmentally friendly and sustainable use of buildings, energy and land. Most of all, the East West Rail link must be fully electrified. It must be a shining example of post-carbon, safe, clean and affordable public transport. The last point that I invite the Minister to address, therefore, is the full electrification of the East West Rail link. Rather than further prevarication and evasion, today would be a perfect opportunity to announce Government support for full electrification.

Labour supports investment in new homes, in new rail links, in projects that tackle climate change and in community building—in investing in a 21st-century economy—but they must be the right projects, based on the correct assumptions in our post-covid society. At all stages, they must engage every part of the community, not just the loudest and best organised, and never in a dash for growth at the expense of existing communities, never at the expense of people on low incomes, and never at the expense of our climate.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and it is certainly a pleasure to take part in a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), or the Member for Wycombe International, a doughty campaigner for his constituents. He spoke eloquently on the issues and the opportunities that face his constituency and Buckinghamshire.

It is also good to see that, beyond the confines of the county of Buckinghamshire, we have a great many other interlopers, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) described himself in a moment of lucidity. We also have my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and, remotely, for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer). It is good to see them. By their presence, they demonstrate how very large a space the arc is. It stretches from the southern border of Leicestershire all the way down to the London borders and crosses east-west a large chunk of our country. Having mentioned them, it would be remiss of me not to note, too, the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who has also always spoken up strongly for his constituency.

We believe the arc is a globally significant area. It is a very big space, which provides the homes for approximately 3.7 million residents. It supports over 2 million jobs and adds over £110 billion to our economic output every year. While London puts the United Kingdom at the heart of global financial and legal markets, the arc is the driving force for national innovation and science. We believe that with the right collaborative support from the ground up, not the top down, by 2050 we could see economic output in the area doubling to over £200 billion a year, with the addition of 1.1 million further jobs.

When I have spoken to colleagues across the House and to our colleagues in local government, I have always been at pains to express that this is not about house building; it is about economic development of a very large region for jobs, skills and the transport and other infrastructure required to build the hopes and opportunities of the people who live there. It is about housing too, but housing is not the central thrust of what we are trying to achieve. When I hear talk from the Chamber of 1 million additional homes, points that were made in a report of some five years’ standing, I reply by saying that is not a Government target and it is not a Government policy.

I pointed that out to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire in this Chamber, but I suppose the best way to keep a secret is to make a statement in the House of Commons. I think the only way that we can put to bed or break open this particular secret is to keep repeating the point that 1 million homes is not a Government target. More homes are what we need and require, because in certain parts of the arc space, Cambridge being an example, average house prices are 12 times the average salary of a local resident. In other parts of the arc, house prices are as expensive, so we do need to build more homes with the right infrastructure for the people who need to live in this space.

Is it the case that the 1 million new houses were the National Infrastructure Commission’s idea, but that the Government have simply not adopted that as their target? I think that is what I heard the Minister clarify.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My fundamental point is that the local plans and local authorities remain the building blocks—if he will forgive the pun—for house building and commercial construction in the area. We certainly want to make sure that local authorities work collaboratively with one another to make best use of this space, but it is the local plans that drive the numbers.

To answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), some authorities may wish to be ambitious and go further than the local housing need number, based on 2014 Office for National Statistics numbers. They may wish to go further. Others may have constraints. They may be green belt constraints, AONB constraints or other constraints. Those also need to be taken into account when local authorities take their plans to the planning inspector. It is for the planning inspector to decide what is a reasonable plan. If local authorities can demonstrate they have a reasonable plan, the numbers in that plan are what they are judged against, not the local housing need number.

I make two further points. The first is that if a plan falls out of date, it is the local housing need number that the planning inspector will look at if speculative planning applications come forward, so all authorities should ensure that they have up-to-date plans. Secondly, it is the case, generally speaking, that when local authorities collaborate with each other constructively, they can find ways of spreading their overall need across a wider space and thereby, using innovative means such as pursuing brownfield regeneration or using the permitted development rights tools that we have given them, ensure that there is less pressure on the all-important green spaces that we all know and enjoy.

If I may, I will address some of the points raised by colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield raised a number of points. She made it very clear that she wants local authorities to define what should be built, and our planning reforms emphasise that very point. We want local authorities to define the homes or the commercial properties that they need to build, the density and the design of them and the quality of them, to ensure that we get the right homes, the homes that we need. She also made the point that in her constituency there are certain challenges with affordability. That is one reason we have introduced the First Homes policy, which will allow the construction, through the planning system and developer contributions, of new homes discounted by at least 30%, which can be defined as for local people or key workers, for example, in order for them to benefit from the opportunity to own their own home.

We have also introduced the affordable homes programme for 2021 to 2026, which provides £12.3 billion of investment in affordable homes across our country. It will provide a significant number of new homes that local people can rent at reduced prices or that they can buy into, in a shared-ownership sense, at reduced increments, so that people can get on the housing ladder more easily.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of biodiversity and the importance of having green spaces that people can enjoy. We certainly recognise that, in the post-covid world, that will be important. She asked what the effect of the covid emergency would be. I think—like Zhou Enlai answering the question “What has been the effect of the French revolution?”—that it is as yet a little too early to say. But we do know that people need better green spaces. That is one reason why, in the national model design code, we have called for tree-lined streets and a better hierarchy of homes versus green space. We have also, in the Environment Bill, made it absolutely plain that when development takes place there must be a biodiversity net gain of 10%. We have also made it plain that local nature recovery strategies, to which she refers, are a fundamental building block of that Bill, which is soon to become an Act, and we shall bake those strategies into our plans for planning reform when we introduce legislation later this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley made, as ever, a very thoughtful speech. He raised the question of the expressway and how that was handled. I will certainly take his remarks back to the Department for Transport and to Homes England. I simply note that in that particular case the Government listened. Clearly, there was local concern about how the approach was made and the proposals were tabled, and the Government have agreed that another course should be taken.

A number of colleagues have discussed—again, eloquently—the question of the spatial framework. We will begin a consultation on the spatial framework very, very shortly. In building our approach to that, which began in February, we have taken on board the views of local businesses, local councils and local authority leaders, who, across the political divide, have given us useful input. We want to ensure that we carry the public with us as we undertake this spatial framework vision consultation. The questions that we will ask in that consultation over the next several weeks will be high-level ones: “How do you want your space to be used?”; “What sort of environmental considerations do you have and how do you want them baked into planning?”; “What are the transport issues that you face?”; and “What are the job and the skill opportunities that you want to see for yourself and the place where you live?” The answers that people give us to those questions will feed a set of policy prescriptions that we could then take forward into another consultation, again engaging local people and involving local authorities and local leaders.

Fundamentally, we want to ensure that local people really get to have their say and not just the usual suspects, if I can put it that way. That is one of the reasons why we have taken such great pains to use the most modern technological tools, such as apps, to reach as many people as possible, including in diverse communities—those people who are not usually touched by the sorts of dry questions that Government and our agencies sometimes ask, including young people, people from ethnic minorities and people from less advantaged backgrounds—so that we get proper feedback that can then inform the decision-making process. We want to make sure that there is proper consultation, proper feedback and proper engagement at the heart of this.

That is also our approach to the growth board that we want to set up, to ensure that business leaders across the area can provide their full and fundamental feedback as to what policies they want to inform this space, because—again—this process is not simply about housing. Homes are important, but so are jobs and the infrastructure to support those jobs, which is why we want to ensure that the growth board plays a vital role in the arc.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire asked the very important question: “What about the infrastructure that really matters to people?” Not the big roads or the great big railways that impress certain people, perhaps, but the GP surgeries, the clinics, the playgrounds, the schools and the extensions to schools. That is one reason why, in our proposals for planning reform, we are proposing an infrastructure levy to replace the community infrastructure levy and section 106, which I think most people and bodies, including 80% of local authorities, agree is a rather convoluted and opaque process for providing developer contributions. It tends to be loaded in favour of the bigger developers, it tends to be very slow, and it tends to result in the infrastructure that was initially conceived of being negotiated away.

We want a system that will provide infrastructure up front that is far less negotiable and that means communities get what they want when they expect it, and as they want it. That is one of the reasons why the proposals built into our planning reforms will be so important for community buy-in to the proposals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South said that this process is not just about houses. Well, he is dead right; it is not just about houses. I have been at pains to be clear about that. It is about the economic generation of a very wide area in the centre of our country in the south, and not simply about houses. He also asked us to be collaborative. We will be, because we fully understand that if we are to succeed in this area, we need to engage the public and take them with us.

Sir Edward, I am conscious that I have now gone on for some 10 or so minutes, that there will be a Division soon, and that the Opposition spokesman wants to intervene, so I shall let him do so.

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is most generous to do so. He has not responded to my key point about the east-west rail link. In order to assuage residents’ concerns and ensure that we are moving towards a greener post-carbon society, can he confirm that the east-west rail link will be fully electrified?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I understand his concern. He will know that this Government are the greenest Government that we have ever had, and the policies that we are pursuing and the commitments that we have made will ensure that that continues. For example, the future homes standard will ensure that homes built after 2025 are at least 75% more carbon-efficient than present homes. He will note that I am not the Transport Minister. DFT is looking at the proposals for east-west rail. We are all committed to it, and I trust that we will get an announcement sooner rather than later.

We are fundamentally committed to the arc and the economic opportunities it presents. We are committed to ensuring that local people are engaged in our plans. We want to ensure that the homes that are built to support the people who want to live and work in the arc are of the right quality, in the right places and are built with the grain of local communities.

We want to ensure that the right infrastructure to support those homes is developed at the get-go and not way down the line. We want to ensure that the jobs and skills in the arc complement those industries that are already there, and provide the jobs for the future. We want to take everyone with us in that enterprise. We believe that the arc can be a tremendous boon to our country and support to the local community. We are determined to see it happen and do it with the support of the local community.

It has been an interesting and informative debate. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for some of the things he said. Before I come on to those, I was grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) reminded us that her constituents are so entrepreneurial. If people have taken enormous risks all their lives, in order to buy themselves a large house in a nice place, they are going to be upset and push back if we build houses in their view. We need to ensure that the system gives them some opportunity to say no and to be compensated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) was right to chide me that I had created the impression that this was a matter only for Buckinghamshire. He was followed very nicely by my hon. Friends the Members for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer). It was important that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out some of the co-ordination problems, and reiterated the importance of the localism agenda, which, Sir Edward, you will remember we were all great fans of early on when we came here. My right hon. Friend the Minister reinforced the importance of those ideas.

The highlight of the debate for me, if my right hon. and hon. Friends will not mind my saying so, was when my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South expressed a sentiment from my heart to his lips, about the pre-eminence of the name of High Wycombe. I was grateful to him for that. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire was right to remind us about the regional development corporations. He spoke most articulately, and I was grateful to be here for his speech.

There was tremendous agreement with the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that we had better appropriate the slogan “affordable homes for heroes” before the Opposition put it on all their leaflets. I certainly would like some affordable homes for the heroes of Wycombe.

My right hon. Friend the Minister made a very strong case for a doubled economic output, with 1.1 million new jobs. I hope he will not mind my saying that, when people hear of another 1 million jobs, they will wonder about the homes to go with them. He has been clear that the local plans remain the building blocks that drive the numbers. That will be heard across the region, in all the counties. I very much hope that councillors and officials will be reassured by that.

Finally, my right hon. Friend the Minister made the point that he wants to ensure that local people have their say over what is done. That is the fundamental point on which everyone here is agreed; and I am most grateful for that.

On the part of the pre-eminent town of Gainsborough, I must now put the question.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.

Sitting suspended.