WILL A MINISTERIAL CHAMPION FOR THE GROWTH CORRIDOR SPRING INTO ACTION TOMORROW?

Tomorrow’s Spring Statement will be delivered just over three months since 300 delegates squeezed into London’s Goodenough College for Bidwells’ inaugural Growth Corridor Conference.

After the half-day event, staged in partnership with EG and Farmers’ Weekly, a small group of investors and advisors joined Bidwells for a private roundtable discussion to agree on a set of recommendations to make to the Treasury’s Robert Jenrick MP, who had opened the event earlier that morning.

Tomorrow’s statement will be overshadowed by Brexit votes later today and possibly immediately after the Chancellor delivers his speech, but attendees of the roundtable will be listening carefully to see if the Treasury has listened to the group’s recommendations.

Since last December’s event, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has published its own formal audit of Government’s progress on delivering against the NIC’s own recommendations for how the Corridor could deliver an additional £163bn of annual economic output, namely by delivering a new expressway road and east west rail link.

The Chancellor is expected to announce a dedicated Ministerial Champion for the Corridor which sought by the roundtable to go with an advertised-for but not-yet-recruited Business Champion. What more can we hope for?

Joining the Growth Corridor dots
Our December event highlighted the importance of coordination between the 22 local authorities across the region behind a single narrative. There is, in fact, a ‘Leaders’ Group’, attended by the likes of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor James Palmer, comprising a senior member from each authority, which meets regularly to discuss the key issues presented by the growth of the Corridor. An Oxford-Cambridge Arc Universities Group of ten universities has also collaborated with the aim of achieving an ‘innovation ecosystem’. But how far do these groups take into consideration private sector interests, vital to necessary investment?

We highlighted in our own Bidwells research paper last year that presenting an attractive investment brand to private sector businesses is just as important as public sector interests, and yet, the private sector is not currently well represented in this major project. A joined-up economic vision for the region has been drafted by PWC and was due for announcement in the Spring but will Brexit overshadow yet another important domestic national challenge.

The Chancellor is expected to focus his Spring Statement on kick-starting stagnating UK productivity – where better than the Growth Corridor?

Call for leadership and more cohesive planning
Many at December’s event called for an infrastructure-led National Policy Statement, rather than prioritising housing delivery, showing the potential impact the investment could have on the UK. Will the Chancellor announce a consultation on this? Might be too early. 

The Government announced last Autumn an independent chairperson to bring public and private sectors together. Recruitment must happen soon. If the Business and Ministerial champions are not identified soon, the Growth Corridor project could lose momentum. Greater coordination across the Corridor is vital. 

At a recent private sector panel session on the Corridor initiative, event chair Lord Deben, John Gummer, called on the Corridor’s interested stakeholders to “speak as one voice with a single vision. This is how objectives are achieved”. Philip Hammond could do well to embolden them by demonstrating the Treasury is listening by announcing the Ministerial Champion tomorrow. 

Engagement but real change
The MHCLG’s Garden Communities prospectus, August 2018 states “for proposals within the Cambridge – Milton Keynes – Oxford corridor, Government will continue to work with local partners to consider how the delivery of new homes and settlements can best support the overarching vision for the axis.” 

Community support and input is fundamental; we're already experiencing some of the same problems as the Silicon Valley in California, where thousands of science and tech jobs have been created nowhere near essential affordable housing developments, so employees have a long commute into work each day.

In the UK, Oxford and Cambridge have the highest housing prices outside of London. The Wellcome Trust has recently submitted an application for 1500 houses to be built adjacent to its Babraham campus in Cambridgeshire to solve housing affordability issues and enabling their employees to live in a well planned community. This should be an important part of the model for the Corridor.

We believe that the Government is working on new legislation around the New Towns Act to drive through a series of larger scale developments across the Corridor. We understand that an announcement on this may be made before the Summer and we know the government is working on a range of incentives for delivery and land value capture to fund infrastructure. There is unlikely to be anything new on that tomorrow but you never know. 

Robert Jenrick MP opened December’s Growth Corridor by saying: “with the right interventions…the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Arc could double in growth by 2050, with up to a million new jobs created, and an additional £163bn of annual economic output”. Bidwells’ own independent research estimates GDP to be well in excess of £300bn by 2050, up to £398bn – equivalent to the current GDP of Norway - with a further 15-20m sq ft of office and lab space, across approximately 540 hectares of land, needed to accommodate this projected growth, read more here

Tomorrow’s statement is an opportunity to maintain the momentum and enthusiasm doubtlessly still in good supply from Bidwells 300-odd delegates. But without a mention to cut through some of the Brexit noise we might find frustration growing.

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