Rishi Sunak has long sought to give Britain its very own Silicon Valley. Partially because pseudo-Californian beaches would provide respite from snarling backbenchers, but mainly because creating a European hub for innovation in Britain would be a good way to rejuvenate our sclerotic growth rates.
Hence why today the government is stumping up £2.5 million for a new ‘regional partnership’ driving investment towards Oxford and Cambridge. With two of the world’s leading universities in close proximity, turning swathes of South-East England into a haven for science and technology should be a no-brainer, surely?
Alas, the philosopher John Stuart Mill didn’t label the Conservatives ‘the stupid party’ for nothing. Readers can be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu: the ‘Oxford-Cambridge Arc’ plan, similar in many ways, was drawn up by the National Infrastructure Commission in 2017, kicked around by ministers, and finally flushed away by Michael Gove last year.
That the Conservatives are now committing money to this not only highlights the party’s current whiplash approach to policymaking, but why Labour look set to win the next election. Even now, the government isn’t committing to the project, merely chucking another couple of million down the rabbit hole. It’s too little, too late – especially as its dithering over the original proposals has stuck two fingers up at my generation’s aspirations and made our struggle to buy a home even more desperate.
Before the project was shelved, the ‘Oxford-Cambridge Arc’ aimed to connect the UK’s two leading universities and the manufacturing centre of Milton Keynes. The plan included potentially also reviving the old so-called ‘Varsity’ railway line between the two cities – it had survived Richard Beeching’s railway cuts, but not Harold Wilson’s. The plan involved building around a million new homes and was projected to create up to a similar number of jobs in new industries like cybersecurity and biotechnology.
‘Growth’ was not the political buzzword du jour before Liz Truss flitted in and out of Downing Street.