Oxford-Cambridge Arc: What will be the impact on Bedford’s economy?

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

In the first of a series of articles on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (OxCam Arc), the Bedford Independent looks at the impact it could have on Bedford Borough’s economy.

The OxCam Arc was first developed as an idea in the 1990s. Its basic assertion is that by better connecting the two historic university towns and parts in between, like Bedford, the area’s economic potential can be greatly increased.

It can be seen as our region’s equivalent of the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine.

A government spokesperson told the Bedford Independent the Arc was a ‘key economic priority’.

The Arc is reaching the stage where differing visions for it have to come together. Now, more than ever, public engagement can influence this.

On Thursday, central government set out plans for an Arc spatial framework. A draft framework will be published in autumn 2022, with public consultation stages before.

Next week, England’s Economic Heartland, which covers the Arc, launches its Transport Strategy.

The framework will act like the existing National Policy Planning Framework does for housing, guiding Arc development decisions.

Bedford Mayor Dave Hodgson welcomed the policy paper’s publication and added:

“It is good that the Government acknowledge some of the issues we face locally especially the need for more and better infrastructure, the need to protect our environment and deprivation; sadly the document does not fully explore how these issues should be resolved.

“It is crucial that infrastructure improvements need to be delivered in advance of any additional growth, as we already have an infrastructure deficit that this document does not address.
“There will be a consultation about the Framework this spring and I encourage all local residents to have their say and give their views.”

The Arc’s economic potential for Bedford

The government’s spatial framework policy paper describes Bedford and Luton as areas with ‘high levels of deprivation’ which ‘have not seen the economic growth of their Arc neighbours’.

We will be looking at local responses to the spatial framework announcement in an article later this week.

OxCam Arc proponents and the policy paper view the Arc as an opportunity to boost local economic growth and redress within Arc inequalities.

Executive director for the Arc Leadership Group (ALG), Bev Hindle, noted urban areas of Bedford Borough have significantly lower life expectancy rates than more affluent, rural parts.

While the Arc can contribute to national coffers, ‘we should be helping our own communities level up as well’, Hindle said.

Economic facts & forecasts for The Arc and Bedford

● OxCam Arc comprises five counties, 3.7 million people and approximately 2 million jobs

● Citing a 2017 National Infrastructure Commission report, the government’s spatial framework argues that ‘with the right interventions and investment’, between 476,500 and 1.1mn additional jobs can be created in the Arc by 2050

● In 2019, education, health and care, and retail economic sectors were predicted to continue to employ the most people in Bedford by 2045

● Bedford’s part of the South-East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP), which produced a Local Industrial Strategy in 2019 and an Economic Recovery Strategy last autumn

● SEMLEP’s Local Industrial Strategy envisioned the area being ‘the connected core of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc’

● SEMLEP’s Economic Recovery Strategy predicted the South-East Midlands economy wouldn’t recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2022-2024, though this was before any COVID vaccines were approved

● The recovery strategy expected short term job losses in Bedford in retail and telecoms sectors particularly. Real estate was identified as a strong potential growth area

In its spatial framework plan, the government promised to develop ‘an Arc-wide economic strategy’.

Local authority leaders may hope they take up many of the ideas put forward in the Arc’s Economic Prospectus, published in October, by the ALG, Arc Local Enterprise Partnerships Group (ALEPG) and Arc Universities Group (AUG).

Among the eye-catching takes from that prospectus were:

● The potential to nearly double the economic output of the Arc area to £200bn Gross Value Added (GVA) by 2050

● An Arc Investment Fund to ‘support and accelerate the growth in the next generation of innovative start-up and scale-up businesses across the region’

● Emphasis on an arc economy driven by science and innovation throughout, with universities pivotal to this

● ‘Green Arc’ idea – sustainability-focused economic growth, bearing in mind the UK’s net zero emissions target

The Economic Prospectus also referenced setting up an ‘accountable executive team’. Although more details are to come, the government committed on Thursday to an Arc growth board.

Bev Hindle explained that the proposed Arc Investment Fund would eventually be funded by both the private and public sector.

It would require commitment from government first though: “If government would pump-prime us by creating an arc investment fund, we think we can then turn that into more money working outside of government”.

According to Savills Research, in 2019 the Oxford-Cambridge Arc already saw £1.1bn in venture capital and £27.4bn in corporate funding raised overall.

University of Bedfordshire on Polhill Avenue Image credit: M J Richardson, Geograph – CC BY SA2.0

Commenting on the institution’s own contribution to the local economy and the Arc’s economic potential, a University of Bedfordshire spokesperson said it was ‘very well placed to support business engagement, having attracted over £20mn in business regeneration funding over the past few years’.

The university also engages with ‘over 600 private sector organisations every year in innovation, productivity improvements, R&D and growth development’.

SEMLEP Chief Executive Hilary Chipping provided a comprehensive statement on the overall potential significance of the Arc to Bedford, saying:

“Working collectively to promote and develop the Oxford-Cambridge Arc brings significant opportunities to Bedford, enabling this area to build on its track record of translating ideas into business successes.”

Acknowledging the pandemic’s impact on businesses and families, Chipping continued:

“Bedford and the South East Midlands is at the centre of this UK region which is recognised by Government as having an important role in building up the country’s economy by creating high-quality jobs and more fast-growing businesses specifically in knowledge sectors and technologies that remain critical to UK-priorities in the global market place.

“This will be ever more important as we forge new trading relationships in a post-lockdown period and continue our quest to decarbonise the way we work and live.

“Bedford has many local innovative SMEs that can be better connected to the R&D opportunities across the Arc. We have the space for businesses to scale up and grow in a sustainable way amidst a beautiful natural environment.”

Chipping concluded that ‘as an Arc, we can realise this area’s full potential for existing and future communities’.
Future articles in this series will dig deeper into the Arc’s potential economic impact by looking at its demographics and higher education, environment and transport implications for Bedford Borough.

Glossary of organisations with major relevance to The Arc

The 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 April 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 (EEH): 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.

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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