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      Planning for a New Age

      It’s often said the life science and high-tech businesses of Cambridge and Oxford have no difficulty in attracting the world’s best researchers.

      21 Feb 2022 Mike Derbyshire, Head of Planning, Bidwells

      The lure of close collaboration with world class universities and weekends spent walking amongst the dreaming spires and picture postcard college “backs” views is all that is required to secure a signature on a contract for a move from Boston, Seattle, Singapore or Berlin.

      What’s less well known is just how difficult it is getting people to make that initial leap of faith to come to these University Cities and develop their careers. Attracting graduates and mid-level employees from across the UK is also a challenge with the risk of a move to close-by London, or the cash rich big tech US corporations lowered by the knowledge that a host of other close-by opportunities await them when it’s time to move on.

      Talented workers move to a place for a career not simply to buy a house.

      Our planning system and wider society still fails to recognise this simple fact of human behaviour and remains fixated on housing numbers, divorced by the complex economic drivers behind the choice of where to settle, buy a house and bring up a family. The narrative around Local Plans continues to be a monologue around housing need. The recent spate of failed or withdrawn local plans in the South is simply a reaction to the perceived injustice of how housing numbers are calculated and distributed. The implications of not having an up to date local plan (based on real world market data) to the economic wellbeing of an area is simply not discussed.

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      It’s not simply about housing numbers and growth for growth sake.

      It’s much more than that. What we’ve learned from the last 18 months is the immeasurable value that education, research and science brings to society. Without vaccines, the implications of the Covid-19 virus would have been similar to the great depression era. The Arc is at the forefront of all that creativity. We are at a fragile time politically and economically, but we need to be brave and grab the opportunity. Or do we say it’s too difficult and let it wither on the vine?

      This opportunity is about creating an environment where the major challenges of the world - health, climate, energy - can all be tackled. The danger is the messaging is being lost in housing numbers and hysterical concerns over that growth.

      In 2019 we called for a radical shake up of planning in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. Our Radical Regeneration Manifesto was intended as a blueprint for how the knowledge economy of Oxford, Cambridge and Milton Keynes, could lead the way in delivering a new type of economic growth across the whole of the UK.

      But to work and to live up the global UK image so beloved of No.10, we must do this at scale. The Boston biopharma cluster in the US has 37.9million sq ft of lab and R&D space, 7x that available in Cambridge. Boston has 6 million sq ft of labs under construction in 2021, Oxford and Cambridge average 300,000 sq ft.

      We still believe we must be more imaginative in the way we develop. Responding to the needs of all parts of society, while supporting our region’s businesses and communities to grow and evolve in a world that is shooting ahead in so many ways.

      But we talk about ‘supercharging’ the Arc we don’t mean overheating its cities and towns housing markets or building large numbers of homes in the countryside.  When Chancellor Philip Hammond stood up in Parliament to deliver his Budget speech of 2017 it was a bold attempt to reset the national ambition of a country recently divided by the Brexit referendum. To remind voters of our nation’s strengths in science and technology and their potential to shape the future of an uncertain economy.

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