Arc Universities

Peter Horrocks CBE, Chairman, SEMLEP (South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership) and former Vice-Chancellor, Open University rounds up the outcomes from the annual general meeting of the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership. 

The ambition for a “green Arc” from Oxford to Cambridge emerged from an enthralling discussion about the sustainable economy at MK Gallery. Local politicians, businesses, charities and citizens gathered at the AGM of the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership.

Attendees heard about the plan for the local economy that has been developed by the Partnership that brings together key public and private voices. Striking in that plan are commitments to enhance productivity through environmental sustainability. (Challenging the conventional view that economic growth and sustainability are in tension).

The South East Midlands’ Local Industrial Strategy identifies some of the top ambitions as; ·

  • To lead the way on the Future of Mobility, through continued investment in the area’s aerospace and advanced engineering excellence, and by pioneering the use of innovative freight technologies and demand-responsive transport. ·
  • To improve productivity and sustainability in tandem, fuelled by renewable energy, smart and connected transport solutions, and greener vehicles, buildings and design principles. ·
  • To trial new approaches to place-making, through a ‘Settlements of the Future’ agenda, and work with partners to promote and enhance natural capital, clean growth, culture and inclusivity.

The AGM heard how the region’s existing strong track record in innovation is already helping to achieve these ambitions.

In mobility, Milton Keynes is experimenting with autonomous electrical pods. Cranfield University has built an instrumented road that runs through the Campus to test on-and-off-road autonomous vehicle technologies. And Millbrook proving ground is host to the UK’s 5G testing which aims to accelerate testing and validation of driverless vehicles.

Sustainability and productivity already go hand in hand. For instance a SEMLEP-supported pioneering project in Corby has built ultra-low energy usage homes that are cost effective for residents. These use modern methods of construction, include micro-generation and can be built in days.

And in innovative place making, the RSPB told the meeting about the exciting Kingsbrook development in Aylesbury (picture above) that has won awards for its positive contribution to the natural environment. Kingsbrook is creating a community made up of three distinct villages and is setting a new benchmark for developments.

So with these existing achievements to build on, the AGM then heard from some inspiring experts on how the area’s existing strengths can be developed.

Sam Goodall from Cambridge Cleantech explained how they are expanding their network in Oxford and to London, to link-up businesses in what he refers to as the “golden triangle”. Sam explained how the space in that triangle is highly attractive to potential investors in green technologies. They are drawn to the global innovation standing of our universities, to the access to innovation capital in London and to the high-quality business environment and beautiful landscapes of the area in the Green Arc.

The message from Cambridge Cleantech was clear – if international investors can see the benefits of a Green Arc, then it is critical for the business, people and politicians of the Arc area to define and promote that concept.

The meeting also heard a powerful and inspiring presentation from Michael Copelston of RSPB. He showed that environmental considerations should not just be about minimising damage to the environment but should also set higher ambitions. He said that when we look back at this in 20 or 30 years, we want to be able to say that the natural environment is measurably better off as a consequence of economic growth, not despite it.

RSPB demonstrated how, despite the area of the Arc being largely rural, a very small proportion of it is nationally important nature – just two per cent. Most of our rural land is intensively farmed.

The RSPB and their colleagues in the Arc’s nature partnerships have set a target of at least doubling the proportion of natural land across the Arc. It is well within the bounds of possibility that a “grand deal” for the Arc could be to return land to wildlife in a way that also frames and complements new homes and workplaces. That would be a great example of how growth can make us greener.

The benefits of a sustainable approach to nature and transport towards our physical and mental wellbeing are increasingly clear. For example, jobs being created near to our homes can shorten travel times, encourage walking and cycling and improve our lifestyles. But we are stuck with technologies and infrastructure that make these things hard to do. We need to be prepared to invest and innovate. The way to recapture our health and environment is not to try to turn the clock back and stop economic development.

We need to make sure the economic development we pioneer in our wonderful region is an example to Britain and the world. With the right plans, political will and investment, we can make the Arc to be a green example that can be good for all who live here and good for the wider world too. I’m confident that the SEMLEP area and the wider Arc can indeed lead the way.