18 February 2022

Abandoning the Ox-Cam Arc is another sign of Britain’s warped politics


The average resident of Oxford or Cambridge probably doesn’t fancy themselves as having much in common with Peter Hitchens, the great Jeremiah of British reaction. But this week he is their prophet nonetheless.

If you missed it, the Government has used the cover of the Levelling Up White Paper to quietly walk away from the ‘Ox-Cam Arc’, a project to link up and develop two of this country’s foremost centres of innovation. It was anticipated to add 3% to the UK’s GDP.

Unfortunately, it involved building houses. In the south, where they’re needed. So, of course, Tory MPs worried about the threat of Liberal Democrat (or at council level, Green Party) challenges have seen it off.

It is a curious and unhappy feature of British politics that the waxing fortunes of two nominally progressive parties should have such profoundly regressive consequences. But then both are, in truth, parties of the comfortably off; voters can now have ‘pulling up the ladder’ in any colour they like.

Nonetheless, it is extraordinary that a government with an 80-seat majority, attained just two years ago, seems incapable of finding a vested interested it won’t retreat from.

Were ministers serious about growth, this would have consequences. If Oxford and Cambridge refuse to expand, then there is surely a strong case that they should receive less by way of state investment. If the UK’s current innovation centres aren’t prepared to keep pace, then we need new ones.

(In an ideal world, of course, they would simply ram the houses through. Perhaps, a decade hence, the realignment might deliver a majority Conservative government which has lost its grip on this area and is thus happy to build there.)

But we have squandered decades already. Hitchens, a resident of Oxford, offered dire warnings about the prospect of his area having to grow and change all the way back in 2000, in The Abolition of Britain. Consulting a map of the area, he wrote in Chapter 4:

“Every outlying village has its own allocation of suburb, or urbage, and it is easy to see that it will need a very strong political will to prevent all these settlements from joining into one megalopolis in the next few decades.”

A ‘megalopolis’ is what you or I might call a ‘town’, I suppose.

For once, the great sage of disaster has proven pessimistic. It turns out he got it precisely backwards: it will take a very strong political will – much stronger than that possessed by the Prime Minister or Secretary of State for Levelling Up – to allow these settlements to grow together, as would have been their historic fate.

It is telling that Hitchens in 2000, no more than Tory or Liberal Democrat MPs in 2022, offers no actual solution for how prosperous and desirable areas of the south are supposed to accommodate growing demand for housing.

Indeed, he spends much of the chapter lamenting the rise of the centrally planned suburb, with its lack of traditional commercial and community centres. And a running theme of the book is a lament for the sudden collapse in the post-war years of organic processes of cultural formation which stretch back centuries.

Yet on planning, an area where the Attlee Government dropped the guillotine across our history with particularly disastrous consequences, Hitchens either can’t or won’t join the dots. An Englishman’s ancient right to build on his own land goes unmentioned, and a ‘very strong political will’ is wished for to prevent the natural growth of the very traditional, poly-centric settlement he seems to favour.

And all the while, people who a generation ago would have owned a place of their own by now – and thus had the chance to settle down, raise a family, and have a shot at living the sort of life Hitchens extols – are stuck in cramped house-shares, paying iniquitous levels of relative taxation, with the prizes to be won by saving so far out of reach that they can scarcely be blamed for embracing the consumer culture he despises. The old covenant, whereby each generation built for the next, is broken and forgotten.

Perhaps Hitchens would be horrified to think of himself as marching under the same banner as the Liberal Democrats and Greens; certainly, they would not welcome the comparison either. But they are comrades nonetheless; the outermost wings of a generational assault on the young.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.