England’s Economic Heartland (EEH) could become the UK’s answer to Silicon Valley. It is already home to the two best universities in the world and unrivalled numbers of science and technology businesses.
It has enormous growth potential, which, if realised, will enable it to compete for UK Plc on the global stage.
As an emerging sub-national transport body (STB), our Strategic Transport Forum is providing the leadership required to realise transformational levels of economic and housing growth. We are opening up a pipeline of the right infrastructure in the right places, which, by taking a programme approach to planning and delivery, can be delivered faster and at lower cost.
This is an opportunity for transformative investment –changing the nature of our transport system, putting the principle of ‘net gain’ at the heart of our strategic thinking and delivering growth that enhances built and natural environments.
Our region’s success cannot be taken for granted. Our businesses and communities are hamstrung by poor road and rail links between our towns and cities, with networks that are overly focused on access via London.
A multi-modal spine, formed of East West Rail and the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway, will be the backbone of a transformed transport system that connects centres of economic opportunity with housing growth and business markets.
We are working closely with Highways England as it develops its proposals for the expressway. Alongside improvement work to the section between the Black Cat and Caxton Gibbet roundabouts, work also centres on the ‘missing link’ between Oxford and Milton Keynes. Three potential corridors for a new road have been previously suggested. We believe there is a need to consider whether the expressway is single or multiple routes, as patterns of planned growth may favour the latter. There is also a need to ensure towns not ‘on’ the expressway still benefit from it, which is why we were delighted to be commissioned by government to undertake an expressway connectivity study.
This will form part of our Transport Strategy, which is currently at evidence-gathering stage, going out to public consultation in autumn. It will include the identification of a major road network and set out our thinking on the strategic importance of first mile/ last mile connections and how they can be improved.
East West Rail will connect key economic and growth centres between Oxford and Cambridge. It also creates new opportunities to improve north-south connectivity between Northampton, Milton Keynes, Aylesbury and onwards to Old Oak Common, a key interchange and regeneration hub. This will require reallocating capacity on the West Coast Main Line, which HS2 will support, while also improving the sections between Aylesbury and Princes Risborough, and the Chiltern Main Line and the Great Western Main Line.
Improving digital connectivity is a priority. The economic impact of doing so will change the nature of travel demand for both people and freight, while also creating opportunities to make better use of transport infrastructure.
On that note, autonomous vehicles are already being trialled here and we’re taking the lead on the region’s approach to Mobility as a Service. We’re also working with intelligent infrastructure projects including intelligent road studs by Valerann and real-time traffic management from Elgin and TomTom. Real momentum is building behind our region.
EEH is playing a vital strategic role to ensure that momentum is sustained, and our potential realised. Going forward, however, we will require a level of investment that reflects the region’s status as a ‘national priority’, so that EEH can match the scale of opportunity with the capacity and capability to deliver.
All of this work is not just for what some might erroneously see as a rather narrow arc consisting of Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. Indeed, our membership could expand in the future – we are engaged in detailed discussions with Hertfordshire and Swindon councils, and are also talking with Norfolk and Suffolk.
This reflects the linkages between towns and cities in the ‘golden triangle’. But more importantly, it demonstrates how EEH’s dynamic, forward-thinking political leadership is working collaboratively to provide the strategic direction required to make a success of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.