UK Property Forums consultant Hugh Blaza takes on the councillors in South Oxfordshire seeking to have work on the Oxford to Cambridge Arc paused.

The Government’s consultation exercise on the future of the Arc has now closed.

It is likely to be some weeks before the results of this exercise are published and then some more before the policies which the Government will adopt are made known.

Nevertheless, we hear that a group of South Oxfordshire District councillors are seeking to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation.

They have passed a motion asking the leader of the council to write to Michael Gove, Minister in charge of the newly – styled Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

The councillors would like the Arc ‘project’ to be ‘paused to reflect on whether the creation of an arbitrary geographic construct driving excessive growth in the South East will make a positive contribution to the Government’s stated aim of levelling up in the UK’.

The inherent fog permeating so much of this statement prompts one to wonder what goes on behind the closed doors of the council chambers.

First, does anyone truly understand what ‘levelling up’ actually means?

Judging by the department’s own website, the Government itself doesn’t. Its vision, articulated by the Prime Minister, is ‘to level up every part of the UK’.

Yet another example of Johnson-speak: the words have a meaning, but the concept behind it does not.

With what is each region to be levelled? The North East lifted to match the South East? In which case, with what is the South East to be levelled up?

Secondly, the councillors’ description of the Arc as a ‘project’ suggests that without some masterplan created in the bowels of Whitehall none of the activity across the region would be happening. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Arc is a region containing nine universities which, through their research activities, have been instrumental in developing innovations whose relevance and importance to the future of the human race cannot be underestimated.

  • You believe in reducing, if not removing, our reliance on fossil fuels to power our travel? Hydrogen-based fuels and electric flight might be the answer and at Cranfield, they are showing how this will be possible.
  • Heard of the Covid pandemic? As we all know, the collaboration between Oxford University and Astra Zeneca across the Arc delivered one of the first vaccines. Meetings in person between the organisations were instrumental in delivering the vaccine and its manufacture.
  • Anyone for life sciences? Research across all the universities is developing cures against cancer, dementia, pandemics and drug-resistent bacteria. Recognising the importance and success of the operations located here, the Arc is now recognised as the most innovative life sciences cluster in the world. Not the UK, the world: Global Britain, indeed.
  • Green energy and energy storage. It’s happening here.
  • Space: the importance of technology in assisting the world in gaining a better understanding of the impact of the activity of humans and how we live and work on our planet. Harwell and Westcott are global pioneers in this field.
  • Artificial intelligence: it permeates all of the activities, driving the understanding of how computers will support and expedite the conversion of scientific discovery into real life solutions and innovations.

This stuff is happening already, right across the Arc. Clusters of organisations have been formed and others are planned. Those clusters are enabling collaboration and driving discovery through ‘coopetition’.

Which leads us back to what the Arc is. It is not a slice of the UK which the Government has decided is the place where the activity should be concentrated.

It’s an area where that activity is already happening. And people from all over the world want a slice of the action. They want to take part and so they, and the growing number of activities themselves, need to be accommodated. The idea that it can be ‘paused’ is risible.

But that does not mean untrammelled and uncontrolled growth. The Arc Leadership Group is committed to the incorporation of its environmental principles in delivering the Arc.

How can the activity be delivered in a way which will enhance the environment? It’s the big question, nobody denies that and that is where the power of central Government should be targeted.

  • Ensure that there is a statutory framework for the growth to be delivered in the least harmful and most sustainable way.
  • Provide the funding for sustainable transport connectivity.
  • Invest in the innovations whose implementation will improve the environment.
  • Make the utility companies (literally) clean up their acts to eliminate waste and pollution.
  • Invest in education so that there is a flow of young bright minds in the pipeline of innovation.

And as for levelling up, the clusters across the Arc may be where a great deal of innovation is taking place (and yes, of course it’s happening elsewhere), but can someone point out that other parts of the country are already benefiting from it?

To take just two examples, do people know that UKAEA has built a new facility in Rotherham to support its literally world-beating fusion project in Culham.

Do people know that the aircraft parts used in the Cranfield aviation projects are built in Bolton?

If the last few years are anything to go by, one could be forgiven for thinking the UK is determined to cause as much damage to itself as possible and then muddle along, invoking the blitz spirit and ‘making the best of it’.

The activities across the Arc are stupendous and the envy of much of the world. Getting behind them is axiomatic. The energy which is being wasted on issues emanating from the apparently deliberate failure to understand how important and valuable the Arc is should be directed to ensuring it is delivered in the most accommodating and least harmful way.

Engaging with the trite sloganeering comprised of another meaningless Government soundbite is folly.

Surely, we know this by now.

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