Ox-Cam Expressway scrapped: but the Devil is in the detail

Ox-Cam Expressway scrapped: but the Devil is in the detail

Ox-Cam Expressway CANCELLED, or is it?

Campaigners across the Ox-Cam corridor were relieved to hear the announcement on 18th March by the Rt. Hon Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport, that the controversial road known as the Ox-Cam Expressway linking Oxford and Cambridge “would not be cost-effective for the taxpayer” and had been scrapped.

For our colleagues in CPRE Oxfordshire, CPRE Buckinghamshire and CPRE Bedfordshire this is tremendous news, and we are really pleased by it.

Helen Marshall, Director of CPRE Oxfordshire said: “We are delighted the Government has listened to the concerns of campaigners and residents. Rest assured we shall be keeping an eye on any ‘targeted, localised road improvements’ planned for Oxfordshire!” CPRE Cambridgeshire will be supporting that approach.

Announcing the news on Twitter Grant Shapps wrote:

Today I’ve CANCELLED the OxCam Expressway project. We’re already delivering targeted plans for road investment to boost transport in the area and building East-West Rail with my recent £760m investment in this transformational project.https://twitter.com/grantshapps.

The project in Oxfordshire has been paused since March 2020 and it is encouraging that the new transport focus will be on East-West Rail. However, all is not quite what it seems.

A quick read of the Department for Transport (DfT) press release reveals that it does not state which sections of the Expressway are cancelled. Remember this is really a road between Felixstowe and Southampton. We requested clarification from the DfT on the Cambridge section from Caxton Gibbet to the Black Cat roundabout on the A1, and received this response:

We are not cancelling the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet scheme. The Government remains committed to that important scheme which offers safety, connectivity, community and economic growth benefits.”

So we now have a situation where in Cambridgeshire £1.4bn will be spent on an “expressway”-standard road, instead of a local road improvement scheme, and £5.2bn will also be spent on a completely new track for East-West Rail through the Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire countryside. It would be interesting to see the calculations that make this level of expenditure in our area cost effective for the taxpayer. We encourage all taxpayers to ask to see those calculations.

We also encourage them to keep us informed of any other ‘targeted, localised road improvements’ that might just lead to the completion of the Felixstowe to Southampton expressway under a different guise.

A copy of the full Department for Transport (DfT) press release is reproduced below.

 Department for Transport


18 Mar 2021

Oxford to Cambridge expressway project cancelled as Transport Secretary looks to alternative plans for improving transport in the region

  • Oxford to Cambridge (Ox-Cam) expressway formally cancelled following pause last March
  • Extensive analysis and local engagement reveals the expressway would not be cost-effective for the taxpayer
  • Government will continue to work on alternative plans to boost transport connectivity in the Arc, alongside delivering the transformational East West Rail

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has today (18th March) announced the cancellation of the ‘Ox-Cam expressway’, after analysis confirmed the proposed project was not cost-effective.

Highways England had been developing potential options for a road link between Oxford and Milton Keynes. However, following close work with local partners since 2014, recent analysis shows that the benefits the road would deliver are outweighed by the costs associated with the project. 

Building on the insight already developed by Highways England, the Department for Transport will now investigate the need for more targeted road interventions in the area, recognising the vital role that transport investment has to support sustainable growth in the region, as noted by the National Infrastructure Commission. The Department will work closely with Highways England and England’s Economic Heartland, as the Sub-national Transport Body to develop a study on proposals which will also support the Spatial Framework.

The East West Rail scheme remains central to providing critical infrastructure within the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, with it not only improving connectivity but also bringing new jobs and opportunities to people in the area. In January, the Government announced a £760 million funding commitment to deliver the next phase of East West Rail, which will create 1,500 skilled jobs, and reinstate direct rail services between Bicester and Bletchley for the first time since 1968. 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said:

“The Oxford-Cambridge Arc is home to cutting-edge research, globally-renowned science and technology clusters, and some of the most productive places in the country – we want to make sure it has transport fit for such an important region.

“Our analysis shows the expressway cannot deliver such links in a way that provides value for money for the taxpayer, so I have taken the decision to cancel the project. But we remain committed to boosting transport links in the area, helping us to create jobs and build back better from Covid.

“We will continue to work on more targeted, localised road improvements to boost transport in the region, alongside the transformational East West Rail, in which we have invested £760m to deliver the next phase.”

Mayor Dave Hodgson, Chair, England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Transport Forum said:

“This is a welcome announcement which provides clarity to those planning for the region’s future between Oxford and Milton Keynes. As our Transport Strategy sets out, delivery of strategic schemes including East West Rail and Mass Transit systems such as those being developed in Cambridgeshire and Milton Keynes, alongside harnessing smart technologies and targeted investment in the road network, are all essential if we are to ensure economic growth while achieving net-zero emissions.

“Work on EEH’s Oxford-Milton Keynes connectivity study begins in March 2021. We will work with partners and government to explore the connectivity needs of this important corridor and to identify the solutions required to support sustainable growth for the long term.”

In February the Government launched the process for developing a long-term Oxford-Cambridge Arc Spatial Framework, including transport policy, for local and national planning and to inform investment decisions so that together, the Government, local authorities and communities can unlock the long-term potential of the area in a sustainable way, improving Arc as a place to live and work.


Contact Information

Fran Golinski:  Fran.GolinskiDrinkwater@dft.gov.uk




Background to the Arc

Expressway cancelled

The Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, has announced that the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway has been cancelled as analysis has shown that “the benefits the road would deliver are outweighed by its costs”. CPRE welcomes this decision which we and other campaigners have been pressing for ever since the project was 'paused' in March 2020. However, the decision appears to have been made on purely cost grounds and not environmental ones. We claimed that the environmental impacts would have been unacceptable, in terms of landscape, rural tranquillity, wildlife and loss of agricultural land as well as the climate change effects of increased road traffic. The Department, in its announcement, said “We will continue to work on more targeted, localised road improvements to boost transport in the region”. CPRE will be watching this very closely. The Milton Keynes to Black Cat section of the road already exists and the new section of the A428 from Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet will still be built across open countryside. 18th March 2021

Reaction to Policy Paper from Bedford Mayor Dave Hodgson

Mayor Hodgson welcomed the Policy Paper’s publication but said:

“It is good that the Government acknowledges some of the issues we face locally, especially the need for more and better infrastructure; the need to protect our environment; and the need to deal with deprivation. Sadly the document does not fully explore how these issues should be resolved. It is crucial that infrastructure improvements need to be delivered in advance of any additional growth, as we already have an infrastructure deficit that this document does not address.” Bedford Independent 22nd Feb 2021

Government publishes Policy Paper on Spatial Framework

Central Government has published a Paper on how it intends to go about preparing a Spatial Framework for the Arc. This will comprise plans for new and expanded settlements, transport and other infrastructure, economic development and environmental enhancement. Consultations on options and Strategic Environmental Assessment are promised. Note that the Paper concentrates on how the Framework will be developed: it is not the Framework itself. Consequently, the Paper does not identify specific locations for new or expanded settlements, although previous announcements have suggested areas for development corporations (locations where planning constraints may be relaxed).

We fear:

  • Loss of ‘ordinary’ countryside and tranquillity; the impact on valued landscapes (not merely officially protected ones such as AONBs); and increase in light pollution
  • Loss of productive agricultural land, needed to increase sustainable, quality home-produced food
  • Likelihood of continued/ increased car dependency
  • Plans not coming forward from democratically-elected local authorities, who will be able to influence only the detail of implementation; instead we have a top-down approach
  • The Policy Paper talks much about ‘sustainable transport’ but does not give a commitment to widespread accessible and integrated public transport throughout the Arc
  • The proposals make it much harder, if not impossible, to meet our biodiversity and climate change commitments
  • The level of housing proposed is far in excess of what is needed to meet natural population growth, even allowing for economic expansion.
  • The sheer amount of housing is likely to attract commuters from further afield, especially London, increasing journey distances.

While ‘sustainable transport’ is frequently mentioned in the Policy Paper, it is clear there is no real commitment to public-transport-orientated development.

The proposal is not consistent with ‘levelling up’ the UK as continually quoted by the Government. It will largely serve to make an already prosperous area even more so. More priority should be given to investment in the urban areas of the northern and Midland regions which are desperate for regeneration and economic development. There appears to be no commitment to protect existing local rural communities which have their own identities from being overwhelmed (Milton Keynes is an example of this).

The indicative timetable is:

To develop a vision for the future of the Arc there will be a public consultation in the summer of 2021, following initial stakeholder engagement.

Options will be developed for turning the vision into policy, based on engagement and initial evidence gathering and analysis. MHCLG will publish these options for consultation in spring 2022.

MHCLG will consider responses to this consultation, and undertake spatial analysis, option testing, impact assessments and stakeholder engagement. The Government will publish a draft spatial framework for consultation in autumn 2022, with implementation of the final framework shortly afterwards.

The Policy Paper can be viewed at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/planning-for-sustainable-growth-in-the-oxford-cambridge-arc-spatial-framework/planning-for-sustainable-growth-in-the-oxford-cambridge-arc-an-introduction-to-the-spatial-framework. 18th Feb 2021.

New settlements between Bedford and Cambridge

The housing ministry has revealed plans to ‘engage with communities’ in the spring and early summer of 2021 on the development of up to four new or expanded settlements between Bedford and Cambridge, reported Planning, 9th Feb 2021. This should not come as a total surprise, as the Government had already suggested in the March 2020 Budget that development corporations were likely to be established for Milton Keynes, Bedford, St Neots and Cambourne, giving a clue as to where some of the new or expanded settlements might be. What we do not yet know is whether the consultation will cover a number of options which will subsequently be narrowed down or whether the sites will already have been decided. Do not assume, however, that west of Milton Keynes will be let off the hook. Watch this space.

East-West Rail plans further delayed

Whilst East-West Rail has received confirmation of £760M funding from the Government, completion of construction work and the commencement of train services on the Bicester to Bletchley/Milton Keynes stretch has now been put back to 2025. No date has been set for the Aylesbury branch. Completion of work on the Bletchley to Bedford section now seems to be put back until 2028, on the grounds that a complete rebuilding of Bedford Midland station will be necessary. It is not explained why a limited interim service to Bedford using existing infrastructure cannot be implemented earlier. East-West Rail said: “While each section brings its own benefits to the communities it serves, East-West Rail’s full transformational potential will only be realised if [the project] is delivered in full”. Bearing in mind the need for decarbonisation, CPRE is disappointed that the route will not be electrified from the outset and that capacity for freight is uncertain. 25th Jan 2021

Milton Keynes Expansion Plans

Milton Keynes Council’s ‘MK Futures 50’ plans massive house expansion and population increase. MPs Iain Stewart and Ben Everitt support new housing to meet local demand; however they believe the plans will place too great a strain on local services and infrastructure, and will damage the environment. They also believe it will undermine the basic structure of the town. Milton Keynes Council have drawn up plans to expand the town beyond the Council’s boundaries to reach neighbouring towns. These include Buckingham, Leighton Buzzard and Northampton. The population is also set to reach 500,000 by 2050, doubling the population in 30 years.

The MPs have highlighted the need for affordable housing in Milton Keynes to be addressed before the city is expanded. Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South, said: “Any plans for new housing must be thought through carefully and be made in conjunction with our neighbours as part of a wider Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor. We have over 20,000 unbuilt new houses already agreed. Why are we not concentrating on building those, and then taking time to think about what additional housing might be needed in the long-term? New homes should be built to support economic growth and not simply to meet an artificial number.” Alex Walker, Leader of MK Conservative Councillors, added: “The extent of MK Council's expansion plans are reckless and will destroy all we love about Milton Keynes.” MK FM radio, Jan 23rd 2021.

Connectivity Studies

England's Economic Heartland has announced that “In 2021 we will see the first two of our programme of connectivity studies getting underway. The studies will be focused on the area between Oxford and Milton Keynes, and the corridor between Peterborough, Northampton and Oxford.” Even assuming that these will be multi-modal studies (and better than the discredited multi-modal studies of the late 1990s), the prospect of the ghost of the Expressway may yet reappear. And given that there is no rail link between Peterborough, Northampton and Oxford, one wonders what might be recommended here. CPRE will be represented on the 'Influencers' Group' for these studies. 16th Dec 2020.

Buckinghamshire Council withdraws from Arc Leaders' Group

Leader of Buckinghamshire Council, Cllr Martin Tett, said:

“Buckinghamshire Council, along with the Buckinghamshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the University of Buckingham, have withdrawn from the Oxford to Cambridge 'ARC Leaders' Group'. As a new unitary council, Buckinghamshire wishes to be in control of its own future economic development and housing decisions, rather than potentially have these imposed upon it by votes from other areas as far away as Corby and the Fenlands. We also wish to support our businesses develop opportunities wherever they occur, rather than be confined within an artificial geography such as the ARC. We wish the very best to those councils who wish to remain within the ARC Leaders Group, and we will continue to cooperate with them on a case by case basis." Oct 2020.

We support Buckinghamshire Council's decision and call upon other local authorities to follow suit in order to restore local democracy to this process. This does not mean to say, however, that Buckinghamshire will not have unwelcome development thrust upon it by Government central planners against its will.