Nature and climate must be higher priorities for the Government to make the ‘Oxford-Cambridge Arc' a ‘world-leader in environmental sustainability’.

We have launched a joint campaign with a coalition of nature and countryside charities to call on the Government to rethink their plans for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc to ensure that, if they go ahead, they protect and restore nature and help with our collective response to the nature and climate emergency.

You can add your voice to the campaign by telling Government to ‘Rethink the Arc’ using our campaign action here.

Sunset over the Chilterns

Image: Sunset over the Chilterns (Robert Page, RSPB images)

The Oxford-Cambridge Arc is the UK Government's plan for growing the economy, housing and infrastructure (like roads and railways) in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The scale of growth and development the Government is proposing for the Arc has huge implications for nature.

Economic growth and development (building houses, offices, shops, roads etc) have been significant drivers of the loss of species and habitats in England. Yet by locating and building new developments carefully, nature can be protected and even enhanced, with benefits for health, wellbeing and economic growth.

Unsustainable growth and development put wildlife at risk and undermine our response to the nature and climate emergency

To save nature we need to think, plan and ‘do’ development very differently from the way it has been done in the past. This means the Government’s plans for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc are hugely important for nature, and for people and communities in the Arc who care most about its natural environment.

Only by building in strong and ambitious environmental commitments from the start, and making protecting and restoring nature pre-requisites for future growth and development, can plans for an Oxford-Cambridge Arc hope to be positive for nature.

Last year, together with the Woodland Trust, Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants, and Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), we published a set of principles and recommendations for measures and processes we argued were vital to ensuing Government’s plans for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc would protect and restore nature and help to tackle climate change.

Unfortunately, the Government has failed to implement these measures and its current approach is putting nature and climate at risk.

The Government’s current approach is putting nature and climate at risk

Nature and climate have not been properly considered or prioritised in the Government’s plans for ‘the Arc’.

The Government wishes to realise the area’s potential for economic growth, which it claims requires a significant increase in the rate of house building and new infrastructure to support this – including major new transport infrastructure projects like East West Rail. However, their recent plans demonstrate the environmental impacts of this level of growth and development have not been factored into that ambition, so any consideration of nature has been added on later rather than built-in from the start.

This is despite the Government’s response to the Dasgupta Review of the economics of biodiversity committing to ensuring economic decision-making integrates environmental considerations and delivers ‘nature-positive’ outcomes.

Perhaps more alarming though is the Government’s plans are circumventing the Strategic Environmental Assessment process, which is designed to act as a safeguard for nature by identifying potential environmental impacts so these can be taken into consideration in decisions that could impact on nature.

Ox-Cam arc map

Image: Map of proposed Ox-Cam arc development

Plans for rapid development in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc are bypassing essential environmental safeguards

How are they doing this exactly?

Well, for one thing, proposals for ‘new and/or expanded settlements’ between Bedford and Cambridge are being developed ahead of sustainability and environmental assessments of Government’s overall growth plans.

Meanwhile, East West Rail is moving to choose a route for the new line between Bletchley and Cambridge, which will determine where new housing is built, but Strategic Environmental Assessment of the options, and their environmental impacts of this scheme in combination with the new housing – including new towns –  it is explicitly designed to unlock.

In fact, both East West Rail and the exploration of potential new settlements along its route have been placed outside the scope of a Sustainability Appraisal of the Government’s plans and the central policy it is intended will shape future growth in the Arc, the Spatial Framework. This makes it extremely unlikely these schemes will be informed by a full and proper understanding of their likely environmental impacts.

The Government has ignored local leaders’ ambitions to protect and restore nature

In March this year, local leaders from across the Arc (council and business leaders and many of the Arc’s leading universities) published their Shared regional principles for protecting, restoring and enhancing the environment in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.

These principles aim to reduce the environmental impact of growth and make a positive contribution to nature recovery and tackling climate change, and include:

  1. Ensuring development in the Arc stays “well within environmental limits”
  2. Achieving net zero carbon in the Arc by 2040
  3. Doubling the area of land managed for nature by 2050

We welcomed the principles and called on the Government to support and help deliver their ambitions for protecting, restoring and enhancing the natural environment in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.

To date though, Westminster has not publicly acknowledged or responded to the publication of the Environment Principles, and they are absent from MHCLG’s consultation. In fact, the Government has yet to announce any specific commitments to or targets for restoring nature in the Arc or adopting higher standards of environmental sustainability in the new houses and infrastructure its proposals would see built.

Finally, if Government fails to protect and restore nature in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, it will set a dangerous precedent that could lead to more unsustainable and damaging growth & development elsewhere.

The Arc is being touted by the Government as a potential world leader in environmentally sustainable development. If it genuinely put nature and climate first, and set out to realise the ambitions of local leaders to protect and restore nature, perhaps it could be, but on current evidence it will be anything but. We urgently need the Government to rethink the Arc.

Tell Government to Rethink the Arc: complete our campaign action here