Rishi Sunak’s government has backed a new regional partnership council to help drive investment into the UK’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, centered around two world-class universities in Oxford and Cambridge.
The decision to boost cooperation at the local level comes a year after Boris Johnson shelved a top-down strategic plan for Oxford-Cambridge Arch to prioritize spending in the north of England.
The new board, while falling short of the original plan to create up to 1 million more homes and 700,000 jobs, has been welcomed by local government and tech entrepreneurs.
Michael Gove, the settlement minister, said in a letter to the new interim chair of the board seen by the Financial Times that the government would commit £2.5m to the project.
He added that the board should help the regional Oxford-Cambridge brand “compete for investment on the global stage”.
The original Oxford-Cambridge Arch plan was drawn up by the National Infrastructure Commission in 2017, but faced strong local opposition over headlines requiring large amounts of new home construction.
Last year, when asked about the project at a constituency meeting, Gove would mimic sitting on a toilet and pulling a chain, adding, “This is what happened to the Arc.” But the decision to fund the board is seen as a positive sign that the government is re-engaging with the concept.
In November’s autumn statement, chancellor Jeremy Hunt recommitted to a £5 billion project to complete a railway between Oxford and Cambridge, reviving the ‘Varsity Railway’ concept that once linked the two cities.
A group including Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford University, leaders at major life sciences companies, investors and science park operators has also received encouragement from Sunak’s office to form an Ox-Cam “supercluster” to work alongside the new partnership.
Andy Williams, senior advisor at AstraZeneca and chairman of the Ox-Cam supercluster, said the combination of the three elements – board, partnership and rail – was a “huge boost to business confidence to continue investing in the region”.
Business groups said the council would bring together leaders from local government, universities and “corporate partnerships”, boosting England’s economic development.
“After the recent political vacuum, this is a huge step forward for . Silicon Valley”.
Richard O’Boyle, chief executive of the Pioneer Group, one of the UK’s largest developers and operators of laboratory space, said the project had been held up by too many divergent and competing voices in recent years, and is something the Partnership Council will address.
However, there was a caveat that the new council would only be able to see Oxford-Cambridge Arch if it was approved with continued investment in infrastructure and government support.
“Like every engine, it must be fueled by money, innovative ideas and amazing people who can turn vision into reality,” said Bridget Smith, Member of the Board and Liberal Democrat Leader of South Cambridgeshire County Council.
Artem Korolev, chief executive of Mission Street, a company providing laboratory and office space across the arch, said successful regeneration projects such as the Docklands development in east London showed that government needed to get involved.
“Private financing alone will not be sufficient to create the giant global pool the region aspires to be. Collaboration between the public and private sectors is critical.”
Philip Hammond, who was a councilor in 2017 when the original scheme was approved, cautioned that while it was positive to see the government re-engagement after the Johnson administration appeared to be killing it, fully realizing the arc concept would require input at a national level.
“It requires a significant commitment to development, defined at the national level, otherwise foreign investors along the arc won’t get involved,” he said, adding that he was skeptical the proposed board would be sufficient. Once again, the UK risks missing out on a great post-Brexit growth opportunity.
Leveling Up said: “As a world-renowned center for science and innovation, this partnership will help local businesses and universities work together on environmentally sustainable growth projects.”
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