Local authority boss says department has admitted it does not want to take project forward

Government officials have reportedly told local authorities that the idea of a centrally driven project to drive an “arc” of development delivering up to a million homes between Oxford and Cambridge has been dropped.

A report written by Liz Watts, the chief executive of South Cambridgeshire Council, one of the local authorities making up the supposed “Ox-Cam Arc”, states there has been a change of approach by the housing department since Michael Gove was installed as secretary of state.

Watts’ report, produced in advance of a council meeting this week, said that after a period of uncertainty, it was now clear that “the government does not wish to see the Ox Cam Arc as a project driven by central government.”

Questions had already been raised about the government’s commitment to the project, with the previous housing minister Chris Pincher, stating last summer that the ambition to build one million homes in the Arc was “not a government target and it is not a government policy”.

The government in 2018 said, in its official response to a report by the National Infrastructure Commission on the proposal for the Ox-Cam Arc, that it supported the NIC’s ambition “to build up to one million high-quality homes by 2050”.

However, at the time the government said it remained committed to the project as a whole, albeit without a specific housing target. But Watts’ report said: “Following the creation of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in September 2021, and the appointment of the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP as the new DLUHC Secretary of State, there has been a significant change in the government’s approach to the Ox-Cam Arc.

“Following a period of uncertainty over the ensuing months, it became clear that the government does not wish to see the Ox-Cam Arc as a project driven by central government.

“There was no mention of the Ox-Cam Arc in the Levelling Up White Paper published on 2 February, and discussions with DLUCH officials have indicated that ministers believe that while they support the continuation of the project, it should be locally led, focusing on things that local leaders believe are priorities.”

Watts said this new position differed from the previous apparent ditching of the project’s original one million homes target, because “many communities continued to be cynical about this position [from the government].”

She added: “Now that the government will not be taking the project forward centrally, it will be up to local leaders to identify the priorities they wish to support across the Arc (if it does indeed continue […])”.

Planning barrister Zack Simons, of Landmark Chambers, said in a blog he was disappointed by the change. He said: “So much for the need for a government-led approach to strategic planning” which the department was telling us about last year. So much for last year’s confirmation that this project could not safely be left to individual authorities to bring forward. […] The great advantage of flexible slogans like “levelling up” is that they can mean whatever you want them to mean.”