We Need to Look Local to Realise the Arc’s Potential
If we want to unlock the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’s potential to become a world-leading centre of innovation, then we’ve got to think local.
The Government’s ongoing development of a regional spatial framework is essential for creating a coherent vision for the area, but that top-down strategy won’t be realised unless people living in the Arc buy into it.
On the one hand, gaining the support of local authorities in the region relies on them being reassured that they will be able to get constituents on side. On the other, investors and developers want a degree of certainty that plans will progress without facing significant local opposition.
The Government knows the importance of hearing from those who live, work and have an interest in the region and reflecting their views in the direction of its framework. Its early consultation work has already established some common priorities for development, including the environment, economy, connectivity and infrastructure, and placemaking.
It shows that we have to broaden the conversation beyond the 30,000 homes target that was outlined in the original Arc vision.
It’s also important to recognise that these issues will mean different things and have different weighting for people depending on where they live. Broad-ranging and comprehensive public engagement is therefore vital for understanding local nuances. It must be a pillar of decision-making around the Arc’s future, not just for developing the spatial framework but for the creation of Local and Neighbourhood Plans through to the shaping of individual planning applications by developers and their partners.
Across these processes, dialogue with residents should be frequent and open. It should also be honest. Not all local aspirations will be achievable so Government, local authorities and developers will need to explain where the trade-offs might be to achieve the ambition of turning the Arc into a world-changing R&D hub. They’ve also got to build local excitement and pride in what it will mean for people to be part of that transformation, and demonstrate what it will deliver for them and their children. If people can picture how they personally could benefit from regional growth and development, then they are more likely to accept that not all their local demands may be met. It will also make the wider initiative feel like less of a top-down imposition.
The long-term nature of the Arc project means that we must understand priorities for current generations and also for future ones too. Young people will arguably be the most impacted by the new places being created, so consultation programmes need to work especially hard to engage them in shaping the Arc’s future and position them to become advocates for the project. As prospective future homeowners, renters or employees, their support is critical to encouraging investors, developers and businesses to commit to the regional vision.
Looking across the nation, our research shows that teenagers are significantly underrepresented in the shaping of new communities; 89% of 16 to 18-year olds have never been asked about the future of their neighbourhood before, while just 8% have attended a public consultation event. Grosvenor worked with Sport England, the TCPA and ZCD Architects to try to rectify this, establishing a best practice model for youth engagement called Voice.Opportunity.Power. Implementing the lessons from this toolkit – from how to make online engagement work for digital natives, to how to tailor strategies for in-person consultation with teenagers – could go a long way to helping get young people interested in and enthusiastic about the Arc.
Transparent and open engagement should be an essential ingredient in any major planning initiative in the built environment, although it’s perhaps especially important for a once in a lifetime opportunity like the Ox-Cam Arc. The project’s ambition and scale require us to work with communities and encourage them to take pride in it so they too want to see it become a success. People make a place, and unlocking the Arc’s talent potential is a huge part of the ultimate vision for the region. The way we shape the Arc’s future could also have major implications for how other large planning frameworks are brought forward and how well they are received by the public. Let’s make the Arc a byword for what good looks like.