Arc Universities

“Where’s the beef?” is often the cry in US political circles when a policy proposal is being examined on whether it is substantive enough. For environment and nature advocates in the Oxford Cambridge Arc, their question in examining the new spatial framework for the Arc might well be “Where’s the leaf?”

Fortunately, the recent publication of ‘Planning for sustainable growth in the Arc’ is full of suggestions and commitments from government that should help to achieve the reputation that the housing minister, Chris Pincher MP, set out in his statement for the Arc to be a “world leader in sustainability”. And, if Arc partners work effectively on these plans, the answer to “Where’s the leaf?” should be billions – of leaves in the new woods and forests that could flourish across the region.

Whilst there are many questions and policy conundrums to be solved before this green ambition can be achieved, here’s some more on the environmental analysis and proposals in the framework document:

The government is embarking on a plan that will provide among other aims :

  • “lasting improvements to the environment, green infrastructure and biodiversity”
  • “strategic approaches to support cleaner air and biodiversity net gain”
  • “an opportunity to drive environmental improvement including recovery of nature”
  • “our ability to meet the government’s commitment to combat climate change, support sustainable patterns of development”

That adds up to a pretty impressive set of intentions, that may well be the most specific environmental commitments ever made in UK place-making.

But, could it be bolder? Some councils and campaigners in the Arc are calling for a “doubling of nature”, through a literal doubling of the acreage of land aside for wildlife.

And the concept of the Green Arc, which has gained some traction since it was discussed at SEMLEP’s AGM in November 2019 is, in the public communications from Government, referred to “one of the world’s premier growth corridors and world-leader in sustainability”.

Local businesses and many residents will applaud that economic ambition, but they will want to see the environmental benefits being given as strong a billing as the growth ones.

Difficult questions will undoubtedly be raised and the biggest questions that arise relate to the How? How will this be afforded? How will these ambitions be guaranteed? How, if a higher rate of growth is the aim can communities be sure that the environment won’t be traded off against that requirement?

No criticism of the framework is intended in posing these questions. Environmentally driven place-making at scale is not just a first for the UK but may be globally. (If you know of somewhere that has done this kind of thing elsewhere, then get in touch!). So the answers need to be found collectively, through academics, environmentalists, economists, planners and politicians together, wrapping their heads round these issues.

There are a few clues to the environmental detail of government thinking found in the framework document.

The framework speaks of setting “high standards for new development, including on carbon emissions, water management, green space, integrated and functional green infrastructure, e.g. for active travel and biodiversity net gain.”

This implies all planning authorities signing up to standards that would be likely to exceed national policies. Such a commitment by local authorities to exemplar standards would be striking and could prove attractive politically. Could this be a “green guarantee” to voters?

However setting, refining and ensuring such standards will require considerable ingenuity and commitment.

If standards are the mechanism at the project or scheme level to ensure environmental adherence, a relatively new concept in strategic planning terms is put forward for the macro consideration:

“The Spatial Framework will help to protect and enhance the environment and the Arc’s natural capital through ensuring that the environment underpins economic, transport and housing and planning decisions.”

The Arc environmental working group, chaired by Cllr Bridget Smith and with the distinguished guidance of Prof Paul Leinster, has done some pioneering work on this concept and it is a tribute to that work that natural capital accounting is referenced repeatedly in the framework.

The idea that potential environmental damage can be balanced by environmental improvements is attractive and sounds simple. Of course, it will be tricky to do in practice. And a particular question will arise for the Arc. In which geography will natural capital be accounted?

For individual schemes, the aim is that the environmental improvements should be part of, or near to, the development. However, for new or expanded settlements, or major commercial or infrastructure schemes, it may not be possible for the environmental improvement to be collocated.

This is where the “leaves” might come in. There are some imaginative plans for large new forest and woods and for canals and wetlands. These new green facilities will be of most value if they are of significant scale. That argues for the environmental net gain potentially to be assessed across geography, possibly Arc-wide.

And if the environmental accounting is at a broad geographical level it is likely that the financial accounting will need to be too. If contributions from development are to be part of the answer to the “rewilding” aims, then it could well be that some of that funding would be best pooled across the Arc to create sufficient scale. In this way, the population of the Arc as a whole could benefit from beautiful new green assets, paid for by the growth that will happen across the area.

And these Arc trade-offs need to happen with central government as well. Government has now defined its economic ambition as the Arc being “one of the world’s premier growth corridors”. The tax revenues that should eventually flow from that growth must make this one of the very highest investment priorities for the Treasury, as the payback in the Arc will be greater than elsewhere in the UK, on the government’s own definitions.

Of course, much of that investment needs to go into the facilities – the schools, the hospitals, the fibre – that will make growth possible. But the people and politicians of the Arc could and should use the government’s stated commitment to natural capital accounting to propose that a proportion of the investment in green assets be paid for by a central government investment pot.

For those large-scale environmental and financial trade-offs to be calculated and negotiated with the Treasury the only way it will happen is if there is a coherence and commitment to how the Arc will determine standards and priorities. The plan to deliver the ‘Green Arc’ (i.e.  world-leading in sustainability) therefore becomes the test case of whether this novel concept of modern holistic planning can work.

Business leaders, through their LEPs, see as citizens the great advantage of setting an environmental ambition. As business leaders, they also see the direct commercial benefits in creating innovative sustainable technologies. And they see that creating a great green compact between the residents of the Arc and local and national leaders is essential.

Delivering the Green Arc is the key to ensuring the greatest growth region in the UK. And that should pay for a lot of new leaves.

Peter Horrocks is Chair of SEMLEP and is contributing to the development of the Arc environmental strategy

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