The Oxford-Cambridge Arc: How the Conservatives should really “Go for Growth”

The fall-out from the dramatic collapse of Liz Truss’ historically short term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be felt for many years to come. The Conservative Party’s reputation for fiscal responsibility lies in tatters, the ideological rifts within the Party risk deepening into full-on chasms, and, perhaps most obviously, Labour are well on their way to winning the next general election. The collapse of the Conservative vote share following Ms Truss’ premiership is probably fair, no matter where you fall ideologically. Her leadership was a total failure, from which no political party could reasonably expect to retain their credibility to lead. For the sake of this article, who you blame for said failure is largely irrelevant.

However, as much as the above remains true, the pro-growth mentality at the heart of Ms Truss’ leadership was the correct one, and the stigma accompanying some of her ideas is incredibly regrettable. Truss’ diagnosis of Britain’s problems was accurate. The country is at risk of falling behind much of the developed world due to stagnant growth since the 2008 economic crash; it is not unreasonable to suggest that by some point in the 2030s our GDP per capita will be lower than countries like Poland. For a nation such as ours, this state of affairs is wholly unacceptable. A perpetual decline into irrelevance cannot be accepted, and growth should be at the heart of Rishi Sunak’s vision as Prime Minister. Through taking forward Truss’ vision of supply-side reforms (and abandoning her naïve taxation policy), Sunak could guarantee the future economic prosperity of the nation.

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc should be the central feature of any pro-growth plan within the UK. This Arc connects Oxford and Cambridge, comprising of land in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. An improvement of the infrastructure between these areas would result in the UK’s two best universities being connected by high-speed rail, vastly improving connectivity between these economic, educational, and cultural assets, with ample housing and laboratory space constructed alongside the new railway. The Arc is already home to nearly four million people and two million jobs which together generate over £111bn of economic output each year. It should not be controversial to support this golden opportunity to improve our Research & Development sector by investing in some much-needed infrastructure and housing, NIMBYs be damned.

A recent article in the Times revealed that there is plenty of demand for the proposed Arc. As our universities continue to dominate the European life sciences sector, and the “golden triangle” between Oxford, Cambridge, and London still produces firms in this field, the UK has an innovation hub at its fingertips not seen elsewhere in Europe. However, our refusal to build adequate lab space and affordable housing for our post-docs (problems easily fixed
through the Oxford-Cambridge Arc) is kneecapping this opportunity. Bidwells, an estate agent, claimed that there is demand for over one million square feet of lab space in Cambridge alone. Despite this, only ten thousand square feet is available. There is no shortage of potential for investment and growth in the UK. Given the relatively dire straits we seem to be facing financially, missing such an open goal would be unacceptable.

Obviously, and unsurprisingly, there would be significant push-back against this plan. HS2 goes to show that any attempts to build significant infrastructure in the UK which damages more than a couple of blades of grass face countless legal challenges by those who would rather our economy collapse than one square foot of greenbelt land be built upon. Part of this challenge could, hopefully, be neutered through ensuring green travel and infrastructure are front-and-centre of any proposed Arc. Walkable towns and cities, non-car centric travel options, good rail links; these are all sensible policy positions supported across the political divide. The promise of green jobs and research areas should further advance the Arc’s cause with those that may oppose it. Nevertheless, the government should be
prepared to crush NIMBY opposition where and when it eventually manifests itself and force all aspects of the Arc through Parliament. The young and optimistic must, for once, be prioritised over those who routinely stop national projects from going ahead.

To keep inline with the government’s Levelling Up agenda, any benefits of the Arc must be accompanied by further investment in national infrastructure, whilst universities outside of the Arc’s geographical remit should be included in research projects to ensure that London and the Southeast do not increase in monetary distance from the rest of the UK. The UK’s future economic prospects rely heavily on us being the R&D hub of Europe post-Brexit. The advancement of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc would be a major step in ensuring that from Dulwich, to Dudley, to Durham, to Dundee, the entire UK’s prospects remain bright going into what is a very turbulent future.