This blog was kindly contributed by Rob Sadler, the Head of the Cambridge office for Savills.
Plans to reduce journey times between Oxford and Cambridge by 40 minutes via the creation of a new Expressway between the M40 at Oxford and the M1 at Milton Keynes are currently being developed, with passionate individuals on both sides of the debate on whether it will help or hinder the surrounding areas.
Whatever the arguments, better infrastructure links between the two cities, whether that is in the form of increased rail capacity or road improvements, have the potential to impact on the higher education sector across the entire area known as the ‘Oxford-Cambridge Innovation Arc’. This is the corridor of land encompassing Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. This area is one of the most dynamic and innovative places in Europe today and is already home to 3.7 million people and generates over two million jobs.
The specific proposals for the Expressway involve a new dual carriageway being built between the A34 near Oxford and the A14 near Cambridge via, or near, Milton Keynes, with links into the existing local road network. If it goes ahead, the Expressway, alongside other infrastructure improvements such as introducing a new direct train line, is forecast to contribute to the Arc area growing by a further two million people and at least a further million jobs by 2050.
In terms of higher education, the Arc is bookended by Oxford Brookes University and the University of Oxford at one end, and Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University at the other. But other institutions in the Arc, and therefore potentially affected by the Expressway, include the University of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire New University, Cranfield University, the University of Buckingham, the University of Northampton and The Open University. Another university is set to join them by 2023: MK:U will have 5,000 undergraduate students, focused on science, technology and engineering, supported by Cranfield University in the centre, forming an important part of the plans to redevelop parts of the town, including delivering 4,000 new homes and additional business and commercial space.
The Expressway will also bring thousands more people within a shorter drive of the Arc’s multitude of specialist tech and science innovation clusters, some of which are founded and owned by the Oxford or Cambridge colleges.
The ‘knowledge intensive’ industries which occupy these clusters and many other locations in the region, dominate the local employment landscape and together form one of the world’s foremost science, technology and business environments, fed by the talent and innovation nurtured by the nearby higher education institutions. They are an integral part both of the local economy and that of UK Plc with the region contributing an estimated £111 billion annually to the national economy.
But there are significant variations in the sharing of intelligence and resources across the Arc. Many higher education institutions and companies currently have stronger links with their peers in London and Birmingham than with other locations in the corridor, as present transport links are stronger along the north-south ‘backbone’ of England rather than across the east-west ‘waistline’.
With the Expressway forecast to cut journey times significantly, this should change. Intra-regional links between all these higher education institutions will be strengthened and a closer academic community formed, facilitating linkages in terms of research, teaching and learning and knowledge transfer.
Crucially, the Expressway should also allow institutions to attract and retain the best staff on a global scale by expanding the choice of where people can live. At the moment, housing is limited across the region and very expensive. In Cambridge and Oxford homes are 13 and 11 times greater than workplace based earnings respectively, but even the more affordable towns and cities of Milton Keynes, Northampton, and Bedford still have house price to earnings ratios of over eight, well above the UK average. The Expressway will open up new sites for housing development and enable secondary satellite towns to grow, with the result of hopefully lowering housing costs. Increasing the number of affordable locations within a commutable distance of all the higher education institutions within the Arc should aid recruitment and retention.
For many, an Expressway is about cutting journey times between the key centres within the region and easing congestion, but it has an important strategic role to play on both a national and worldwide stage. From a global perspective it has the potential to support a growing ecosystem of learning, research and innovation so it continues to rival other world-leading hubs. Getting it right is therefore crucial.
Read more about the Oxford-Cambridge innovation arc here.