Oxford-Cambridge Arc: How will it impact Bedford’s environment?

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Image Credit: Paul Gillett, Geograph - CC BY SA2.0

In the final part of a series of articles on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (OxCam Arc), the Bedford Independent looks at its possible impact on Bedford’s environment.

The government’s Arc spatial framework policy paper warned of the ‘risk’ that development ‘will harm the natural environment’ instead of restoring nature.

There appears to be strong local public demand for sustainable regional development.

For example, public feedback led to England’s Economic Heartland’s (EEH) transport strategy unveiling a new 2040 target for decarbonising all transport in the region.

Read: Oxford-Cambridge Arc: What does a new regional transport plan mean for Bedford?

EEH’s programme director, Martin Tugwell, described the overall strategy and the 2040 target as something the heartland could be ‘proud of’.

The Green Arc

The phrase ‘Green Arc’ crops up repeatedly in OxCam Arc rhetoric.

Bev Hindle, executive director of the Arc Leadership Group (ALG), described the Green Arc as ‘cross-cutting’ and revealed work was ongoing to produce ‘a set of shared environment principles’. He was hopeful this would be published in March or April.

Hindle added that to achieve climate action the Arc needs ‘innovation’ throughout all aspects, from its economic growth, to the way housing is built and infrastructure developed.

The Arc Universities Group (AUG) produced a Cranfield Uni-led environmental report in November. One of its recommendations was to ‘strengthen teaching and learning on the environment across the Arc universities’.

The report highlighted actions already taken by the universities as well. This included the University of Bedfordshire’s Renewable Energy Innovation Centre (RENEW).

Founded in 2019 with TWI Ltd, the hub seeks to ‘develop sustainable technologies for renewable energy’.

A university spokesperson highlighted several examples of the hub developing with companies such technologies, including Kepler Energy applying research on new tidal turbine designs to ‘achieve higher energy conversion’.

‘Nature’s Arc’

Last summer, the RSPB, Woodland Trust and local branches of the Wildlife Trust put forward the Nature’s Arc.

An RSPB spokesperson described it as ‘a set of principles, recommendations and targets for protecting and restoring nature, and for environmentally responsible development’.

The River Great Ouse in February

A Woodland Trust spokesperson said they aimed to ‘avoid adverse impacts’ for nature and the potential to create more natural habitat ‘is immense’.

The Nature’s Arc core principles are to:

● Protect existing nature
● Restore nature across the Arc
● Set new standards for sustainable development

Aside from calling for the area to reach net zero by 2045 and take ‘steps to bring this target forward to 2030’, the Nature’s Arc imagines a ‘Nature Recovery Network’ (NRN).

The wildlife charities want an Arc NRN with ‘binding targets’ for habitat creation by local authorities.

The Nature’s Arc also advocates for connectivity and recovery zones as part of the Arc’s NRN. Connectivity zones are areas for ’priority habitat creation and restoration’ to link up existing wildlife sites.

Recovery zones are ‘opportunities to create habitat, including new landscape-scale nature reserves’ between existing wildlife sites and connectivity zones.

For Bedfordshire, the RSPB spokesperson highlighted the series of wildlife areas along the Greensand Ridge and the River Ouse valley as parts where the NRN could come into play.

They also said that creating more nature-rich habitats in farming landscapes must be ‘a priority’. Species like the vulnerable Turtle Dove, which still breeds in the county, rely on this.

The RSPB spokesperson advised that Natural England are piloting in parts of the country “Local Nature Recovery Strategies” (LNRS).

Part of the government’s draft Environment Bill, these would carry out most of the recommendations of the Nature’s Arc NRN, with the exception of not being Arc-wide.

Credit: Revital Salomon, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Arc’s economic prospectus published last autumn called for a doubling nature fund. Hindle said the detail of this and how nature could be doubled in the Arc would be worked on ‘with government to define over the next couple years’.

The government’s spatial framework policy paper in February didn’t contain any commitment to the doubling of nature though.

In response, the wildlife charities behind the Nature’s Arc have called for the government to commit to doubling the area of land managed for nature. This would cover 6% of the Arc’s land area.

The spatial framework paper did promise ‘a natural capital approach to inform’ Arc planning. Natural capital relates to natural assets, like water and soil, which combine to provide benefits to people.

An OxCam Arc Local Natural Capital Plan (LNCP) is being drawn up by DEFRA agencies to guide sustainable development.

Bedfordshire Naturally, the county’s local nature partnership, spearheaded an independent study which recommended an Arc-wide LNCP.

The Arc LNCP values the area’s natural capital assets at £2.3bn. These assets are also estimated to save £689mn in healthcare costs every year.

Maps have also been charted, plotting the distribution and quality of the Arc’s natural capital.

LNCPs were proposed by the government in its 25 Year Environment Plan in 2018 and the OxCam Arc LNCP is nationally significant as the first government-endorsed LNCP.
Environmental Criticisms

As covered previously, the Arc has had its fair share of environmental criticisms. These range from opposition to East-West Rail’s current Bedford-Cambridge route corridor from the likes of CPRE Bedfordshire, to worries also about the quantity and location of housing developments.

Campaign for Better Transport’s Norman Baker, who was a Liberal Democrat transport minister, told the Bedford Independent that East-West Rail’s initial use of diesel trains was also ‘a disappointment’.

Baker called it ‘yesterday’s technology for tomorrow’s railway’ and said all diesel trains will have to be withdrawn by no later than 2040 so it’d be much cheaper for East-West Rail to be electrified straightaway.

East West Rail Company are committed to the line running ‘on green energy’ in the future.

The Nature’s Arc is not universally welcomed either. Environmental activist George Monbiot even suggested in a Guardian column that it’s ‘one of the most outrageous exercises in greenwashing’ he’d ever seen.

This criticism of the collaborative aspects of their approach to the Arc was put to both the RSPB and Woodland Trust.

The RSPB spokesperson said they, along with their Nature’s Arc partners, chose to engage ‘in response’ to the Arc’s proposals. ‘Concerns about the potential environmental impacts’ are shared by the RSPB as well.

On housing specifically, the spokesperson added:
“We believe that determining the number of houses that will be built in the Arc before the environmental tolerances and cumulative impacts are understood is the wrong approach.”
Similarly, the Woodland Trust spokesperson said ‘early engagement with local and central government is important’ to help avoid development harming ‘irreplaceable habitat’.

The RSPB spokesperson was asked to summarise the fears they had concerning the OxCam Arc:

“That if it fails to do things differently it will perpetuate the existing model of unsustainable and environmentally damaging growth and development that we urgently need to get away from if we are to reverse wildlife and biodiversity loss and rise to the challenge of tackling the climate crisis.”

Similarly, the charity’s hopes for it:

“That it will do things differently and live up to its potential to become a precedent-setting example of environmentally led sustainable growth and development that protects and restores nature.”

To conclude the series are SEMLEP’s chief executive Hilary Chipping’s final reflections in her comprehensive statement to the Bedford Independent about the Arc’s potential significance:

“The public and business leadership across the Arc have come together to set out an economic vision to put innovation and the environment at forefront of the region’s growth, acknowledging that through working collaboratively we can better respond to the challenges facing the world- from vaccines to climate change.

“Bedford, and the surrounding SEMLEP areas, is already a great place to live and work. As an Arc, we can realise this area’s full potential for existing and future communities.”

Glossary of organisations/terms with major relevance to the Arc

Arc Leadership Group (ALG): brings together leaders of local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and universities within the Arc. All except two local authorities are members.

Arc University Group (AUG): Formed in 2019, aimed at encouraging collaboration between higher education institutes located in the Arc.

Nine of the ten universities in the Arc are members, including Cranfield and the University of Bedfordshire. Cranfield’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Peter Gregson, is its chair.

England’s Economic Heartland: a sub-national body responsible for connectivity plans, including transport, across Central England, including the Arc area. Bedford Mayor Dave Hodgson is the chair of its strategic transport forum.

Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs): arising from a 2011 government white paper, they are partnerships of local organisations, people and businesses who seek to improve their local natural environment.

Bedfordshire Naturally was founded in 2013, is government-recognised, and its board is elected by members every 3 years.

South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP): local enterprise partnerships are locally-owned partnerships between local authorities and businesses.

They play a part in deciding local economic priorities and try to encourage local economic growth through investments.

SEMLEP, created in 2011, covers areas in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, including Bedford Borough.

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