UK Property Forums consultant Hugh Blaza casts a wary eye over infrastructure and environmental credentials of the Oxford – Cambridge Arc and sees much to like.

If you accept the concept of the Arc, it may be because you realise that Oxford, Cambridge and all the institutions, organisations and businesses along its trajectory aren’t about to be uplifted and moved to another part of the country in the name of levelling up.

Anyone who has tried to get from one end of the Arc to the other (or even points in between) knows that it isn’t easy. It may be easier, in fact, to get from Leeds to Manchester (or maybe not…).

And, as the activities in the Arc place demands for improvements in the infrastructure and more houses and facilities to accommodate the people and activities which are being attracted to the area, it is crucial that we temper the white heat of technology with the new green imperative.

Transport options for longer journeys within the UK are road, rail or air. They tried building an air bridge between the two ends of the Arc a few years ago but flights ceased pretty soon after they’d started.

Building a road, or an ‘expressway’, was always doomed to fail because huge swathes of the countryside would have had to be concreted over to create it. And in the era of zero carbon, the impact on the environment from the construction and traffic use of a new road was quite rightly considered unacceptable. It was always going to be a 20th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.

Which leaves rail. The obvious choice, you might think; much of the infrastructure is already in place, albeit not in frequent use or, indeed along some of its length, any use at all. A new railway company, East West Rail Company, or EWR Co, was created three years ago to realise the concept and has set about its task.

EWR Co recently published a summary of its activities and it makes interesting reading.

Recognising (quite rightly!) the environmental zeitgeist and the sensitivities over new development, the emphasis is firmly on nature and consultation. Having aligned its activities with the UN’s published sustainable development goals, EWR are keen to tell us how they are striving to put the ball in the back of the net. Examples of the company’s efforts include:

  • In a first for a major rail project, the section of East West Rail being constructed between Bicester and Bletchley is committed to restoring habitats and delivering 10 per cent biodiversity net gain.
  • EWR has created 100 hectares of new habitats in more than 20 different sites between Bicester, Bletchley and Milton Keynes, planting more than 150,000 trees.
  • EWR is encouraging communities to help it create a map of green spaces in and around the communities it will serve.
  • The appointment of Arcadis as its commercial partner. Included in Arcadis’ remit is the obligation to deliver positive social impacts for communities along the East West Rail route and the wider economy. This will include supporting job creation, upskilling and training and increasing awareness of career opportunities, particularly for young people.
  • Consultations with the local communities likely to be most affected will take place. Where improvements to lines which are already in place are planned, objections are likely to be minimal, particularly where positive environmental and community gains can be demonstrated. But the new line from Bedford to Cambridge is going to be more contentious as the ‘preferred route alignment’ is decided.

‘Helping communities to thrive and improving people’s lives for generations to come’ is how EWR sees its mission. How people react to the plans will be interesting and it does seem as though EWR is leaning over backwards to provide opportunities for the public to engage in consultation with it.

The creation of clusters of activity and habitation around each hub of a railway would appear to be the approach and moving between each should become more of a pleasure than a frustrating chore. EWR appears to have realised the nature of the challenge and the importance of delivering it.

But one final thing: not a word in the newsletter about electrifying the line. That’s ELECTRIFYING THE LINE!!! Surely, irrespective even of net zero, every single future passenger would expect that from the outset?

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