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'Science Cities II' discussion findings part 2

CGI of proposed innovation hub main building at the employment-led Oxford North development (Fletcher Priest for Thomas White Oxford / St. John's College Oxford)

Our Science Cities II debate, joined by leaders from hospital trusts, universities, development and the construction industry - and opened by the Infrastructure & Projects Authority saw Head of the Commercial Adviser Team Stephen Dance - asked how the procurement of government projects for road, rail and fibre could be speeded up and whether the Oxford Cambridge knowledge Arc would benefit from its own development corporation or dedicated planning authority?

Stephen responded:

'On procurement there is reform in the pipe line and also for the construction 'playbook'. In a non- EU environment there are opportunities to do things differently and to achieve more simplicity and clarity and allow the UK more say in how it selects contractors. This won't mean competition is thrown out of the door. However, I do not think the laws have been the problem but rather the way they have been applied has been the problem so we need to change the culture around this. Certainly this government is very committed to bringing in changes.'

Partner Heather Pugh at Milton-Keynes head-quartered planners, David Lock Associates, said:

'The scale of the Arc ambition is fantastic and an economic prospectus was published in early October by a group of twenty five councils and ten universities. However, there is a huge lack of mapping and drawing on housing for the Arc. There is momentum both from the LEPs and from the government, but there is no strategic plan for the Arc. The issue now is how we engage with wider communities on the benefits of being in this knowledge corridor stretching from Cambridge in the east via Milton Keynes and Bedford to Oxford. Getting these on board will be one of the main challenges.'

The Economic Prospectus for the Arc seeks to enable the area to double its economic output to £200 billion annually by 2050. According to the prospectus the combined output of the science and technology industries with other sectors within the Arc is £111 billion.

Heather continued:

'It was really encouraging to hear a major contractor, Sue Kershaw from Costain, talking about housing and joined-up infrastructure planning. We have found it difficult to engage at an early stage to talk about sustainable transport solutions with Network Rail and other important parties as there has been no structure to do this. These conversations must include green infrastructure too.'

Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cranfield University and Chief Executive of MK:U, Professor Lynette Ryals, commented on the issue of sustainability and influencing the development of the Arc:

'We have a once in a generation chance to build back better and build in some of these (sustainability) principles. We need to think about how we actually live these new systems in a green fashion, and by not encouraging behaviours that undermine the sustainable intent, BREEAM excellence and so on. There is a cultural element to this too, as the UK has had a culture of doing things more cheaply, rather than better - unlike the Germans for instance. We have seen this in food and in housing. It's great now to see leadership saying build back better for the next generation. The way that we think about living, travel and energy is crucial, and developing the skills and technology to support these is an important part of the MK: U offer.'

Lambsquay Consulting founder and former Director of Environment at Cambridge City Council. Simon Payne added:

'What is heartening in the discussion is the importance of place. Cambridge has had a high quality of life - with green spaces alongside the science parks, colleges and housing - and the universities have been working with the city council to ensure this continues. Where the collaboration works best you get the best result. We need, though, to have answers for the people who ask of new developments: what's in it for me? We are knee deep in Covid-19 which is not best place to find solutions to planning. We need to think long term and perhaps could do well to go back to 1898 to Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City Movement which aimed to create healthy living conditions and which followed on from an epidemic. It is important to take the longer term view and also look at how other countries are dealing with the recovery from Covid-19.'

Stephen Dance then responded on the question of integrated planning:

'We have, in the past in the UK, been very good at putting houses where there are no jobs, and infrastructure where there are no houses. This has probably been due in part to systemic thinking from Whitehall. My view on this is that the problem has been partly eroded by the creation of city regions. For example the Greater Manchester Authority has a regional plan which brings together planning for infrastructure, housing and jobs combined with a spatial plan, and the West Midlands is well on the way to achieving this too. Other areas like Thames Gateway are trying to bring these themes together. With devolved power and devolved budgets they can start to plan in a more holistic way - as London has done for 20 plus years. However it's not perfect and there is no political consensus on creating an Oxford Cambridge Arc authority. There are always tensions between where the housing goes, the jobs go and where the transport infrastructure goes. However, linear infrastructure is going to be needed.

'I wonder whether we do think sufficiently laterally at planning infrastructure for future work habits and patterns, especially around last-mile deliveries and so on. William Donger's scheme - Oxford North for St John's College, Oxford University - is a great example of bringing together work, research and play on an urban fringe, using some social infrastructure which is already there.

'It maybe with new housing developments, the ability to have a work office nearer to home is going to be important within walking distance, so there may well be changes in the way we plan and live. We can all agree that a holistic approach to planning is desirable, but on the Arc you can't take politics out of it. There is a tension between central control and local needs. The Arc will have to happen and some of it may be imperfect, but with leadership and sponsorship from the centre.'

Director of Thomas White Oxford, William Donger, explained:

'We are in final negotiations on section 106 with the city council, but this project is trying to create a new part of Oxford, employment with living and with a small amount of retail. We are lucky that the site is only 15 minutes walk to Oxford Parkway rail station on the proposed direct line to Cambridge and the current line to London Marylebone. We are putting in £100 million of infrastructure to support the development. We have been to America to look at how they do it there, and we have had a lot of interest from international investors and we hope the UK will be interested too. We sit between four major routes and and we are trying to get away from car-dominated living with investment in pedestrian pathways and cycle-routes. We hope to start construction in January 2022.'

Oxford North aims to create 87,000 square metres of collaborative work-space, 4,500 new jobs alongside 480 new homes with over 23 acres of public green space. It will be a low-carbon development and will have parking for 3,000 bicycles.

Look out for our full forum report on 'Science Cities II' and the upcoming related discussion on Europe's leading 'Technology Cities'.

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