Central Beds to join Growth Board to aid Oxford-Cambridge arc development

The Oxford-Cambridge corridor is set for massive development. File photo. Picture: Archant

The Oxford-Cambridge corridor is set for massive development. File photo. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

A group being set up to help councils co-ordinate economic growth in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, including Bedfordshire, has been labelled a quango and compared to the ill-fated regional assemblies.

The Growth Board would “suck the life out of Central Bedfordshire Council’s regeneration programme”, it has been claimed.

But the council plans to join neighbouring local authorities as part of the organisation, while preserving its own decision-making processes.

Conservative Toddington councillor Tom Nicols told the executive: “I question the arguments of joining this quango. What is it?

“It’s a vehicle for enabling growth. It’s a vehicle for providing houses. And because we’ve built the housing, we need to build the industry.

“Or is it because we built the industry, we need to build the housing?

“It doesn’t contribute to Central Bedfordshire. Our growth agenda is one of the highest in the country as it is.”

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He asked: “Why do we need to chase a programme which will generate further growth?

“We’re a tad fearful that the goverment is going to make us take not 1,600 homes per annum, but more like 2,500.

“That sounds like a done deal. I had understood this council was objecting to that and was trying to persuade the goverment this was not a reasonable and not a fair proposal.

“The budget for this is quite low, £5,000 I think. That seems minuscule. But it won’t stay like that.

“We will have to increase the budget. It’s going to take up our resources.

“It’s going to take up our funds, and ultimately it will suck the life put of our own regeneration programme.

“This quango sounds remarkably like a regional assembly,” he told Tuesday’s meeting.

“Collaborative government. What was the regional assembly if it wasn’t collaborative government?

“How long before an Eric Pickles look-a-like takes the decade of work that authorities put into regional assemblies, the thousands of hours of work, and trashes it? It’s been done once.”

He added: “The make-up of this project is heavily biased towards district councils.

“It seems irrational that a unitary authority, such as this – which replaces one county council and two districts – has the same standing, the same footprint, as a district council.

“There should be at least three members from this authority on that body, otherwise we’re unreasonably and unfairly represented.”

He continued: “I would ask we think otherwise and the effort that’s put into this could be put into our authority approaching government.

“If there is anything that should represent cohesive and collaborative government it should be the Local Government Association, rather than this newly-formed structure.”

Conservative Dunstable Watling councillor Nigel Young had painted a different picture of the new Growth Board.

The Oxford-Cambridge corridor has the potential to deliver a million new homes by 2050 – with 1.9m new people, more than a million new jobs, and £256 billion in gross value added, he told the executive.

“The government has yet to fully respond to the National Infrastructure Commission’s final report,” he said.

“It’s due in the autumn. A previous vision stated it will be necessary for local authorities to work together much more closely going forward.

“It will require a fundamental shift in the scale at which local authorities collaborate on planning and infrastructure.”

He asked: “So why should Central Bedfordshire engage with the proposed Growth Board?

“CBC will have greater influence with the government by working with the partnership within the central area to agree housing growth and manage economic growth potential.

“We are delivering more homes than any other authority within the Oxford-to-Cambridge corridor.

“The housing target is set to increase by 60 per cent to 2,550 per year minimum, in the next two years. So we see a major risk of CBC becoming a dormitory area to provide housing to support nearby cities, which of course we must resist.”

He added: “The proposed growth board will go some way to position Central Bedfordshire within the emerging corridor in order to mitigate the growth impact.

“Collaboration on planning and infrastructure does not cede any powers from this council to the central area Growth Board, but relies on a decision to be made by each individual council.

“The alternative very clearly is the goverment will seek mayoralties. I could easily envisage a mayor to cover the unitaries of Milton Keynes, Bedford, Central Bedfordshire and Luton.

“And that’s a direction the government appears to want to take.”

Mr Young, the council’s executive member for regeneration, also said that when Aylesbury Vale and Northampton become unitary authorities there will be a loss of five district councils.

Arlesey Conservative councillor Richard Wenham said: “The direction of travel of government is much greater co-operation between local authorities in the Oxford-Cambridge arc.

“And either we step up to the mark and join our neighbours in co-operation, or we will be left behind.”

Council leader James Jamieson, who represents Westoning, Flitton and Greenfield, said: “There is already effectively a body in Cambridgeshire, a mayor. There is already a growth board in Oxfordshire.

“There isn’t anything in the central area of Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – and government is saying you need to talk to us with one voice.

“If we want to have those things that are absolutely crucial, what we have to do to represent our residents is do the best we can to get infrastructure.

“That’s not just roads and railways, its funding for schools, for utilities, for health facilities and leisure facilities.

“I recognise there are shortcomings to this. It’s very much a collaborative approach, with 17 councils. But we need that body for the co-ordination and to get the infrastructure we need.”

The executive agreed to recommend to become a full member of the Growth Board, and spend £5,000 to support its work.

Central Bedfordshire Council’s full body of members will have the final say on the recommendations from the executive.