Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Oxbridge Brain Belt

Last night, Nick Boles gave the Macmillan lecture to the Tory Reform Group.  You can read a potted summary of it here, but I wanted to pick up on one part of his text, because it's relevant to my post on HS2 a couple of months ago.  Essentially the issue of the Oxbridge Brain Belt has raised its head again, after first being proposed by Lord Wolfson last April.

This government likes large infrastructure projects - "Boris Island" and HS2 are ample proof of that, and I can see some logic in the Brain Belt proposal to link up the Oxford-Cambridge-Milton Keynes troika with a new motorway, paid for by the development of a new garden city en route. But, to return to a thought from last week, isn't this just another case where the best is the enemy of the good?

First, consider the very real problems of the northern cities - do we really want to be building an entirely new city in the south-east, when regeneration is so urgently required in large conurbations elsewhere.  Of course, some will argue that it should be both/and, not either/or, but it does indicate some "interesting" priorities, to say the least.

Then there's the purely political consderation, and this is really amusing.  If you're going to build a new city on this route, then where do you put it?  Logic would dictate the point where the motorway intersects with HS2 (for a potential new station), and the M40: so, North Buckinghamshire, just to the east of Bicester then; we could call it, oh, I don't know, Stratton Audley.  The best of luck with getting that one past an electorate that is already up in arms about HS2 - "by the way Bucks, as well as the high speed rail line, you're also getting a motorway and a city........"

And yet, there is something in this, and maybe it doesn't need a motorway. 

The first thing to say is that east west transport in this country is abysmal.  I regularly travel from Bicester to Milton Keynes for work, and what should be a 20 minute journey can take over an hour. Cambridge can take two.  Public transport is abject; the X5 bus weaves its merry way from Oxford to Cambridge via Milton Keynes and Bedford in a catatonia-inducing three and a half hours.

The Centre for Cities, in it's Cities Outlook 2012 notes that Cambridge and Oxford are first and third for number of patents granted in the UK, they've both got world class universities, and they don't directly capitalise on this.  The same report notes that Milton Keynes was the fastest growing city in the UK between 2000 and 2010, as well as being 3rd in the UK for business start-ups per 10,000 population.  Clearly there is potential here for an M4 corridor style belt of prosperity.

Of course, there used to be a rather well placed railway line.

The Varsity Line from Oxford to Cambridge was closed at either end in 1967, leaving only the section between Bletchley and Bedford, and the spur from Oxford to Bicester Town open to passenger traffic.  The rails are still in place between Oxford and Bletchley.  One of the infrastructure projects announced by the Chancellor in the run up to Christmas was the re-opening of the line to passenger traffic between Oxford and Bedford, with a new connection to Milton Keynes Central.  But why stop there?

The obvious answer is that the old trackbed east of Bedford has become obstructed.  Housing crosses the line at Sandy and Potton, the Mullard Radio Astronomy Laboratory has appropriated 3 miles of trackbed outside Cambridge, and there's a "guided busway" on the formation between Trumpington and Cambridge city centre.

But, if we're seriously debating building an entire city and new motorway surely we can look at whether it mightn't just be cheaper to allow Milton Keynes and Bedford to expand, and use the money from developers to fund either a deviation around the obstructions (surely not beyond the wit of man), or compulsory purchase/relocation of anything in the way.  This last might seem rather hardline, but actually I wonder if the authorities at the time authorising any of the above developments bothered to revoke the Act of Parliament for the railway line - which would lead to a potentially interesting legal position (feel free to step in here and correct me, it's certainly cost people their gardens elsewhere when the rails have unexpectedly been put back....).

Reinstatement of the railway line between Oxford and Cambridge would join up the Oxbridge Brain Belt, get freight off the roads, and provide a genuine east-west rail link in a country now largely short of them.  Indeed, if the government also reinstated the spur off to Banbury from Verney Junction then you've got a new fast link between Cambridge and Birmingham, opening up the West Midlands conurbation.  It's certainly worth looking at as an alternative: at a time when grand projects come with a grand price tag, maybe we should lower our sights ever so slightly and just have good, affordable projects?

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