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Climate Change blog: Greening the Arc

1 December 2020

Bev Hindle, Executive Director, Oxford-Cambridge Arc Leadership Group talks about how ‘greening the Arc’ has the power to drive positive perceptions of growth. 

For many people, there is an inherent contradiction in seeking to improve the environment through growth. But it is possible, and its where local authorities and place leaders have a huge role. 

The pandemic and how we’ve adapted to life in lockdown have made many of us re-evaluate what’s most important to us. Images of people walking in their local communities and cityscapes with drastically reduced air pollution remain vivid in our minds. Many dinner-time conversations are had about how we want to live and work in the future. It’s certainly a common theme in many webinars I participate in too. 

How we live and work and deliver future growth in a sustainable and inclusive way has been a major agenda for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc for several years. This region is an area already recognised by Government as a major growth area and an area of national economic importance. This prominence will grow as the area’s businesses, institutions and local leadership together use their innovation strengths to power the Arc’s economic contribution to UK recovery and crucially strengthen the UK economy in a new trade era. As leaders of place, we know that for an area to achieve its economic potential, its communities must be strong and resilient. This requires strategic planning, joined-up investment - particularly in homes, infrastructure and in our people through skills, access to facilities and services, and it is essential for local communities to be engaged and on board.

The Green Arc encapsulates how we can bring this all together. The Arc Leadership Group has brought together nine universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, but also the Open University and Cranfield, together with three local economic partnerships and the majority of the area’s local authorities. The fact that the area is also home to globally recognised assets and institutions like Bletchley Park, Harwell, Silverstone and Pinewood Studios, only adds to the innovation culture which has attracted government recognition.  

Fundamental to the Green Arc, is the strength and value of the environment for its own sake. The Government’s recent publication of the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, while quiet on the essential role of local authorities in delivery, or on nature itself, does represent a significant and welcome shift in thinking that aligns with the Green Arc. It marks the beginning of the end for perceiving concern for the environment as an add-on or a constraint. Aligning the UK’s industrial future to clean energy, technology and innovation and to meeting our net zero commitments is a positive step-change. We would like it to go further to encompass natural habitat, nature recovery and biodiversity net gain. These are every bit as vital as investing in new technologies.

One of the most important aspects of the Green Arc for me, is the ability for this to bring so many partners together in agreement. That might sound odd, but think about it for a second. The Arc is not just a political construct, it’s a collaboration among place leaders and as such it needs a strong identity and vision to bind it together, to influence and to sell its ideas. We want to have influence, to reach into government thinking and policy development, and advocate for regulatory change to support climate and environment work as part of our economic success. As we move into 2021, we’ll see significant progress on the Arc’s Spatial Framework, currently in development with government. This is the opportunity to embed key principles - environmental, sustainable and inclusive economic growth and placemaking - into a national statement of policy. Get that right and we will have gained something of real benefit to the Arc and the rest of the country when developing future Local Plans.  

The Green Arc is in some ways an artificial construct, but its role as a key influencer through the number of partners working closely together, with the same goal based on regional assets, is something that can be replicated elsewhere. The area has caught this government’s attention because of the focus on science and innovation at a regional scale. I think this is where we can have the greatest influence, not just with government, but with our residents, investors and the development industry; we have a story to tell. Creating a centre-point and an identity that people can buy into is the beginning, and if that happens, in 10 years’ time we will see some even more internationally significant achievements that began in the Arc. For example, establishing commercial carbonless flight as we are leading on, is opening up a multi-billion pound sector which the UK as a whole can benefit from.

If we can establish this identity then I believe that by 2030 we can be absolutely world leading in several sectors. That is what is unique about the Arc, that potential at scale. In the short term, if we achieve a solid plan, clear vision, and a policy landscape that enables local plans and local investment business cases to follow a new and different approach to dealing with climate change and inclusive growth, then I think we will have been very successful. And I think we should be able to achieve that within the next five years. 

The core of the Arc - collaboration, healthy placemaking, environmental sustainability and economic resilience - are also the fundamentals of a place director’s role. This is about how our communities work, the places people live in and ensuring they have the skills so that they don’t get left behind. Many areas have extreme differences in life expectancies - as high as 15 years - in different parts of a town or city. If we can’t solve this, then all the talk of vision and delivery doesn’t matter. Covid-19 is teaching us that we need to think more about community and environmental structures; nature must be part of the solution going forward and the place agenda needs to be front and centre, because we cover all these themes.

We can do a lot of things as planning and highway authorities, but also through procurement and the way we work with our businesses, communities and voluntary groups. Human interaction with the environment is vital for our wellbeing - Covid-19 has made that obvious - so we need to protect where its right and proper to do so, and just as importantly, add value and accessibility through new development.

In that sense, the Green Arc is about all of us, our communities and people, infrastructure and economies. Those are the fundamentals of a sustainable vision that can positively drive the Arc forward, with the environment at its heart.