In the second 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 demographics and higher education.
Ageing and Growing Population
Bedford’s population is growing and ageing.
SEMLEP’s 2019 Local Industrial Strategy evidence base projected this for the region, which Bedford is part of.
Cambridge Econometrics projections of Bedford borough’s population up to 2045, based on Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates, also predict this demographic shift:
SEMLEP’s economic analyst Arthur Le Geyt cited the ageing population as a key reason why health and care would increase in its local economic importance:
“While in 2018 the SEM [South-East Midlands] had a below average old age dependency ratio (ratio of over 65’s to working age residents) the ONS forecasted that the ratio in the SEM was expected to exceed the national growth rate, exceeding it by 2030.”
A growing population, of course, leads to more demand for housing.
Myth or Fact: Arc’s “One million new homes”?
One million new homes by 2050 is a commonly cited Arc figure.
However, a SEMLEP spokesperson said ‘there isn’t a plan to build 1mn new homes in the area’. Stressing the Arc’s economic focus, they continued:
“Housing affordability is an undoubted constraint on growth in some areas that needs to be tackled but there is no agreed number of homes to be built in the Arc beyond what local areas have in their plans.”
The much-quoted 1mn figure appears to come from the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) 2017 Arc report. It envisioned a 1.4mn+ increase in the Arc’s population by 2050, which ‘could require between 782,000 and 1,020,000 new homes’.
Members of SEMLEP and the Arc Leadership Group (ALG) also spoke at a Build Environment Network conference in December 2020 which had as a promotional topic title, ‘the creation of 1mn new homes’.
Richard Murdock is planning director for Woods Hardwick, a ‘multidisciplinary practice’ development firm based in Bedford.
Murdock’s attended several Arc conferences organised to inform businesses. Unprompted, he raised the 1mn homes figure: “In every conference I’ve been to, there’s always been one of the key points that has always been made, that that’s never actually been a stated objective or a stated government policy.
“The Arc is about more than the delivery of one million homes. The delivery of housing is almost like a byproduct of everything else so it’s about education opportunities, it’s about employment opportunities. The ability to diversify the economy.”
Murdock added he felt there was ‘a bit more momentum’ behind the Arc, though noted a consistent concern about levels of public awareness of it.
He said that the government was seeking ‘to engage a specialist community engagement company’ to address this.
Leaving the much-discussed 1mn figure aside, there are significant Arc house building plans:
● Bedford Borough Council’s latest Local Plan to 2030 included plans for 500+ homes each in the villages of Bromham, Clapham, Great Barford and Sharnbrook.
● This would increase the size of the latter two villages by more than half, according to CPRE Bedfordshire.
● Both the 2017 NIC report and the government’s recently published plans for an Arc spatial framework to guide development, identified housing availability as a major Arc issue.
● Bedford Borough Council began consulting on its next Local Plan last year. This is due by January 2023, which means it’ll take place before the Arc’s spatial framework is developed beyond draft form.
Stressing how the National Planning Policy Framework (NPFF) shapes local plans, the SEMLEP spokesperson added:
“Through existing Local Plans which go up to roughly 2031-36, there are already plans in the works for roughly 600,000 homes.
They also didn’t expect the Arc spatial framework to ‘change the forecasted number of homes – but it will help secure timely delivery of infrastructure to where growth is planned’.
Local branches of countryside charity the CPRE argue there exists a significant democratic deficit in Arc development decision-making, with particular concern about ‘Growth Boards’ which shape local development.
All branches within the Arc, including CPRE Bedfordshire, wrote an open letter in 2020 to Arc local authority leaders, ‘requesting more openness and a fundamental change to their working practices’.
Meanwhile, answering a query related to East-West Rail, Richard Fuller, Conservative MP for North-East Bedfordshire, said he understood the preferred Route E for the Bedford-Cambridge part was swung by the borough council’s March 2019 consultation submission.
This, he said, had focused partly on possible ‘scope for substantial additional housing’ north of Bedford.
Executive director of the ALG, Bev Hindle, spoke passionately to the Bedford Independent about what the Arc’s development may offer to young people, describing it as ‘a brilliant opportunity’ for younger generations.
A major part of the Arc’s potential for young people is its higher education offer.
The Arc Universities Group (AUG) was formed in September 2019 to ‘foster collaboration, research, skills and innovation’ between the Arc’s universities. Cranfield and the University of Bedfordshire are members.
Dr Nicholas Lancaster, director of innovation & enterprise service for the University of Bedfordshire, commented: “With our research expertise in areas such as STEM and Health and Social Care, amongst others, and our extensive experience in business engagement, being part of the Arc Universities Group helps us further our reach and impact across the region, attracting interest and investment from across the UK.
“We care about the impact we make on local lives and livelihoods, and we want to play a central role in making this part of the Arc the go-to destination for start-ups and high growth companies in innovation and productivity.”
Beyond traditional graduate courses, the University of Bedfordshire has the largest offer of higher and degree apprenticeships in the SEMLEP area.
A university spokesperson also drew attention to a January 2020 university socio-economic impact report.
Independent analysts calculated that ‘every £1 spent at the University of Bedfordshire generates £6.50 in regional added value’.
An AUG spokesperson stated the key areas of focus for universities from the Arc’s economic prospectus last autumn: life sciences, sustainable aviation, the UK Space Getaway.
Sustainable aviation may be viewed as the most significant theme for Bedford Borough.
Besides the Aircraft Research Association (ARA) being based in Bedford, nearby Cranfield Uni has become a major hub for research into the holy grail of aircraft technology, carbonless flight.
The AUG spokesperson highlighted a proposed Arc virtual institute for aviation, OCAVIA. They described this as a ‘priority project’ for the Arc. Professor Iain Gray OBE of Cranfield Uni, chairs it.
Cranfield also won the bid to take charge of the digital-focused MK:U university in Milton Keynes. This is expected to offer 5,000 places, when it opens in 2023.
Meanwhile, the University of Bedfordshire has worked on connected autonomous vehicles and Oxy-fuel combustion technology to reduce diesel engine emissions.
The university spokesperson also commented that they offered ‘a specific range of courses’ in aviation and airport management as well as travel and tourism.
The AUG recently produced an environment report as well, detailing its members’ commitment to environmental sustainability.
Future articles in this series will dig deeper into the Arc’s potential impact by looking at the transport and environment implications for Bedford Borough.
Glossary of Organisations/Terms 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 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.
National Infrastructure Commission (NIC): Created in 2015, executive agency of UK government, which it advises on infrastructure challenges.
Local Plans: These are developed by local planning authorities, planning development, especially housing, in local areas. Currently, Bedford Borough’s is shaped by a National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in terms of house numbers required to be built.
It’s proposed the planned Arc spatial framework will also guide local plans in the Arc.
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.