Oxbridge is an ivory-tower state of mind, perhaps, or at least two ancient rival universities, but how about this: in the future the word could describe a fully connected English economic region, a rival both to London and to the great midlands and northern cities.
This is the aim of the National Infrastructure Commission, headed by Lord Adonis. This advisory body, a legacy of the Osborne chancellorship, wants to create a 130-mile economic corridor linking the two varsity towns and their hinterlands just beyond the Chilterns. It is running a competition to glean ideas as how to best make the new places in it. A fast cross-country road is planned, while the long-abandoned ‘varsity line’ railway from Oxford to Cambridge is being re-established bit-by-bit.
It brings into the mix less glamorous towns along the way. Milton Keynes, Bedford, Bicester and Buckingham lie along the main corridor: Northampton marks its northern boundary, with Aylesbury to the south. Consider them all together as part of the same thing, and what do you get? Well, a lot more high-tech industry and a lot more housing, for a start; two serviceable existing airports at Cambridge and Kidlington (plus Luton lurking nearby), and no need to go from one part to another via London. That’s the thing about southern England — its towns and cities are on strings leading out of London, not on strings connecting each other. Greater Oxbridge (my term, not theirs) aims to put that right. If it sounds like a variant of Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, that’s because it kind of is.
We don’t talk much about ‘new towns’ any more, but they exist, usually hidden under the names of existing ones. Cambridge and Northampton are expanding like mad, Oxford less so, but the towns in between offer the greatest potential. Greater Oxbridge (which the NIC drily calls the ‘Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford Corridor’) will be not so much a new town as a densified region. It’s the knowledge economy writ large. You could see it more prosaically as Milton Keynes spreading its tentacles across the region. (Actually its western end is fast-growing Didcot, where a ‘garden town’ is planned, but the Oxford-Cambridge thing sounds better.)
Hence the architecture and planning competition. Densification means building, but when builders are allowed to build randomly you end up with endless dorm-itory suburbs. Greater Oxbridge needs ultra-sensitive planning, not least because this is an often beautiful part of the country still quivering from having the HS2 railway line shot across its western end.
Adonis talks of the ‘potential to build afresh in a sensitive manner, safeguarding the beauty and character of the natural and built environment’. But the region has a housing crisis. They want to build up to twice as many houses as the current rate, nearly doubling the region’s population by 2050. The competition (results to be declared this autumn) will, hopes Adonis, show how this can be done. Expect screams of protest nonetheless.
England’s economic powerhouses used to be divided into three lumps: London–Bristol, the Midlands, and the North. Greater Oxbridge (or whatever its name is) is not yet on our mental map as a fourth lump. But it will be, sooner than you think.