Has Oxford and Cambridge’s dream to rival the USA’s Silicon Valley been Gove’d?

Oxford Cambridge exressway route B

With two of the world’s most renowned universities spinning out science and technology companies, it’s no wonder that government and business leaders saw opportunities to connect the Oxford and Cambridge, via the 20th century new town of Milton Keynes.

But that dream appears to have hit the buffers if reports are true that Michael Gove, the government’s Levelling Up minister, has decided to put the project at the bottom of his priority list.

Perhaps the writing was being graffitied on the wall in March last year, when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps cancelled the Oxford-Cambridge (Ox-Cam) expressway, after he said that analysis confirmed the proposed project was not cost-effective.

Highways England had been developing potential options for a road link between Oxford and Milton Keynes. However, following close work with local partners since 2014, analysis revealed that the benefits the road would deliver are outweighed by the costs associated with the project

The cancellation of the expressway came two months after Grant Shapps had announced £760 million funding for the delivery of the next phase of East West Rail, which will create 1,500 skilled jobs, and reinstate direct rail services between Bicester and Bletchley for the first time since 1968.

At the time he said: “Restoring railways helps put communities back on the map, and this investment forms part of our nationwide effort to build back vital connections and unlock access to jobs, education and housing.

“Returning these routes to their former glory, and progressing work to reopen even more lines and stations shows our commitment to levelling up journeys across the country as we build back better from the pandemic.”

The area is already rich with some in the UK’s most innovative businesses, in fields such as life sciences, energy, aviation, space, advanced manufacturing, transport and the digital sector.

The Oxford to Cambridge Arc – somewhat inevitably dubbed “the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley”, or an “innovation engine” to complement the industrial engines of the Midlands and the north – has been a talking point for nearly 20 years.

In 2003, three regional development agencies – the East of England Development Agency, the East Midlands Development Agency, and South East England Development Agency – published their vision for an ‘arc of innovation and entrepreneurial activity’.

More recently, the government invited the three Local Enterprise Partnerships of Bucks LEP, OxLEP, and SEMLEP, which cover the corridor, together with the Mayoral Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, to work together to develop a shared economic vision across this Arc.

According to the National Infrastructure Commission, the executive agency responsible for providing expert advice to the government on infrastructure challenges facing the UK, the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the corridor in 2016 was £107 billon. By doubling housebuilding rates in the area this could increase to £250 billon.

In its response to the NIC report, the government designated the Arc as a key economic priority, outlining a breadth of actions to seize the opportunity for growth identified in the NIC’s report. The government also affirmed its ambition to deliver more homes in the Arc, supported by measures such as the £215 million Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal and the recent confirmation of £445 million Housing Infrastructure Funding for the Arc.