Shortly before Christmas an interim report was published proposing that a Silicon Valley be created in Britain like that on America’s west coast, and that Milton Keynes should be its hub.
The report’s author? – the new National Infrastructure Commission, established eighteen months ago by George Osborne to provide expert advice to the Government on the major infrastructure challenges facing the United Kingdom.
The report argued that Britain possesses two of the finest universities in the world but that their future success is threatened by a chronic under supply of housing and poor east west transport links in what it describes as the Cambridge Milton Keynes Oxford knowledge arc. As a result staff are difficult to recruit and retain, and business costs rise.
The Commission proposes that the existing plans for an East West Rail link should be taken forward urgently and that an Oxford Cambridge Expressway should be built. It believes that these “once in a generation investments” will unlock land supply allowing the necessary housing to, be built. House prices in Oxford and Cambridge are double the national average hence the need to build elsewhere.
Reports like this are often kicked into the long grass, but there is no sign of this happening. The Commission has promised a final report later this year. Meanwhile the Government has announced a new “delivery vehicle” to take forward East West Rail and specifically the link between Bedford and Cambridge where the original line no longer exists. It is bringing forward £100 million to accelerate construction of the Bicester/Aylesbury – Milton Keynes – Bedford link. A further £27 million has been made available to find initial design work on the proposed expressway.
One issue addressed in the interim report is that of governance. The knowledge arc crosses twenty seven local authorities all of whom will have to work with national government as well as various executive agencies such as the new East West Rail delivery vehicle. Planning powers are fragmented and arrangements for funding developer contributions to infrastructure vary. The report points to the need to articulate an agreed strategic vision for the economic and spatial development of the whole area, and hints that development corporations may be one way ahead to convert aspiration to reality.
I believe that this is a huge vote of confidence in Milton Keynes on the part of the National Infrastructure Commission. I hope that we will grab the opportunity it offers with both hands. Our development east and west has always been constrained by boundary issues. Our communications with both Oxford and Cambridge have never been so good as our links with London or Birmingham. We should support working across boundaries provided always that residents are fully consulted, the democratic legitimacy afforded to elected councils is recognised, and that there is a direct link to the Treasury for much of the required infrastructure funding.
We have done this before – we have already built a city here. Let us now take the lead in building Britain’s Silicon Valley.
By Sam Crooks