Rishi Sunak’s government has backed a new regional partnership board to help drive investment into the UK equivalent of Silicon Valley, centred around the two world-class universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
The decision to boost local-level collaboration comes a year after a top-down strategic plan for a “Oxford-Cambridge Arc” was shelved by Boris Johnson in order to prioritise “levelling up” spending in the north of England.
The new board, while falling far short of the original plan which envisaged the creation of up to 1mn extra homes and 700,000 jobs, has nonetheless been welcomed by local government and technology entrepreneurs.
Michael Gove, levelling-up minister, said in a letter to the interim chair of the new board seen by the Financial Times, that the government would commit £2.5mn to the project.
He added that the board should help the Oxford-Cambridge regional brand “compete for investment on the global stage”.
The original Oxford-Cambridge Arc plan was drawn up by the National Infrastructure Commission in 2017, but faced strong local opposition over headlines that it would require large amounts of new housebuilding.
Last year, when asked about the project at a constituency meeting, Gove had mimed sitting on a lavatory and pulling the chain, adding: “That’s what’s happened to the Arc.” But the decision to fund the board is being seen as a positive sign the government is re-engaging with the concept.
In November’s Autumn Statement, chancellor Jeremy Hunt recommitted to a £5bn-project to complete a rail link between Oxford and Cambridge, reviving the concept of the “Varsity railway” that once linked the two cities.
A group including Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford university, leaders at major life science companies, investors and science park operators has also received encouragement from Sunak’s office to form an Ox-Cam “supercluster” board to work alongside the new partnership.
Andy Williams, senior consultant at AstraZeneca and chair of the Ox-Cam supercluster board, said the combination of all three elements — the board, the partnership and the railway — was a “huge boost to business confidence to continue to invest in the region”.
Business groups said the board would bring together leaders from local government, universities and “enterprise partnerships”, which promote economic development in England.
“After the recent political vacuum this is a big step forward for the . . . Arc which desperately needs a clear, long-term vision to seriously compete with other global superclusters like Silicon Valley,” said Mike Derbyshire, partner at property consultancy Bidwells.
Richard O’Boyle, chief executive of Pioneer Group, one of the UK’s largest developers and operators of lab space, said the project had been held back by too many disparate and competing voices in recent years, something the partnership board would address.
However, there was caution that the new board would only enable the Oxford-Cambridge Arc vision if it was matched with continued investment in infrastructure and government support.
“Like every engine it needs to be fuelled with money, innovative ideas and great people who can turn a vision into a reality,” said Bridget Smith, board member and Liberal Democrat leader of South Cambridgeshire district council.
Artem Korolev, chief executive of Mission Street, a company delivering lab and office space across the Arc, said that successful regeneration projects like the Docklands development in east London showed that the government needed to be involved.
“Private funding alone isn’t going to be enough to create a global supercluster the region aspires to be. Public-private collaboration is crucial.”
Philip Hammond, who was chancellor in 2017 when the original scheme was approved, warned that while it was positive to see the government re-engaging after the Johnson administration appeared to kill it, bringing the arc concept to full fruition would require national-level inputs.
“It does require a major commitment to development, determined nationally, otherwise foreign investors won’t engage along the arc,” he said, adding that he was sceptical the proposed board would be sufficient. “Once again, the UK risks missing out on a great opportunity for post-Brexit growth”.
The Levelling Up department said: “As a globally renowned hub of science and innovation, this partnership will help local businesses and universities work together on environmentally sustainable growth projects.”