Over the Christmas and new year period, there were more stories about building a UK ARPA, based on the US DARPA, which stands for Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Whether or not this is a good idea as a way of distributing research funding, and it may well be, has been debated elsewhere. But one interesting feature of the recent media coverage is the apparent desire to put any new institution outside the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford-Cambridge-London.
A golden triangle?
As the Director of a UK-wide organisation and a governor and alumnus of the University of Manchester, you won’t find me criticising the idea of further boosting the research capacity north of the Watford Gap. There is huge potential to do more: the benefits would be social, economic and educational and could help to build a more equal and cohesive country.
Yet it is still odd that policymakers feel the idea of boosting the north has to be spun as a dig at the Oxford/Cambridge/London area, which was recently described as ‘one of the most dynamic and innovative places in Europe’. It must seem crazy to people in other countries that we feel the need to talk down our one area of such unqualified success when talking up other areas.
It is especially odd to talk down the Oxford/Cambridge/London region at a time of such unprecedented uncertainty about the UK’s place in the world, and when Remainers and Brexiteers alike both want to show the UK remains open to investment from elsewhere.
But the oddest thing about the whole discussion is that is it based on a deceit. There is no golden triangle. There is only a golden V.
Oxford, Cambridge and London are rammed full of top-notch researchers and educators, many of whom need more space. But the three areas do not make up a triangle. Triangles have three lines as well as three points and there is no good way of getting between Oxford and Cambridge. This is despite the potential of places situated between the two places, such as – in higher education terms – Cranfield, the University of Buckingham [where, to declare an interest, I am also a governor] and the new MK:U.
Taking forever to travel a little way
The two cities of Oxford and Cambridge are only 66 miles apart but the fastest driving route is half as far again at 99 miles. It takes over two hours.
The train takes even longer at two-and-a-half hours, as you have to go via London – that is 45 minutes longer than in the late 1930s!
There is a coach (the X5) that takes a more direct path but, given the quality of the roads and the stops en route, it takes longer still at three-and-a-half hours.
In the 2010s, as well as back in the 1930s, taking a commercial flight was an option. When, a few years ago, someone organised a Top-Gear style time challenge between the two university cities, the journey took 25 minutes by plane, around three hours by train and half an hour more by car (despite it being a Lotus).
But the flights were brought to an end around the time of the financial crash and the quickest way to fly now is via Manchester or mainland Europe, which can eat up a whole day. So it is super slow as well as terrible for the environment.
In short, there is no golden triangle. That is why, for almost 20 years, policymakers have been trying to improve the infrastructure, including the transport links, across the top of the triangle.
Promising the earth but delivering little
In Government at Westminster, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives have all, in the past, recognised the strong benefits of doing this. When I stood (unsuccessfully) in Cambridge at the 2010 election, my very first election promise was to work to reopen the Oxford-Cambridge rail link because the benefits were so obvious.
It was an uncontroversial thing to say at the time. Yet, at the recent general election, candidates standing for all three of the major UK-wide political parties fiercely opposed the proposals to boost the area, and particularly the plans for a better Oxford-Cambridge road link via a new Expressway.
The comments of Anneliese Dodds, MP for Oxford East, appear to reflect the change of heart among policymakers.
- In 2018, theGuardian quoted her as saying: ‘If this [expressway] does deliver affordable homes that are in the right place, I can’t look my constituents in the eye and say I’m against it.’
- But what sounded like a brave and principled stance, rejecting nimbyism, did not seem to last long. A few months later, she wrote on her website that it ‘would seem sensible for any plans for a new road to be paused’.
- By the time of the 2019 election, Dodds had apparently performed a full volte face, pledging her support to the No Expressway Group and telling the Oxford Mail people should vote for her because ‘I want to continue to campaign against the expressway’.
In other countries, they are developing 600mph hyperloops. Meanwhile, we have spent years arguing over whether it is right to reopen railway lines that were closed in the 1960s (which would still mean a journey time between Oxford and Cambridge of 80 minutes) and whether to widen the A34.
The argument for our electoral system is that it delivers clear and stable government. That has been in doubt since at least 2010. But the 2019 general election result is supposed to be making the idea more fashionable again. Yet given the live review of High Speed Rail 2, a separate official review of the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway and the political spin aimed at dampening down expectations of the most thriving part of the UK, perhaps it is not so.
Who will make the case for maintaining the UK’s areas of existing strengths alongside building new ones? Who will ensure that all parts of the UK with potential are freed to deliver post-Brexit economic success? Where is the political leadership?