February 2019 Newsletter from John Howell MP for Henley

In the last couple of months, I have noticed that a number of local magazines and newsletters have carried articles on the proposed Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, even in villages that would not be directly affected. I have also had a number of people write directly to me on the issue. So, this month I am dedicating my newsletter to this.

The proposed Expressway is part of a wider project over a geographical arc from Oxford to Cambridge via Milton Keynes. The Milton Keynes link is an important aspect of it which necessarily influences any infrastructure proposals. It is a major project with the work being pulled together under the umbrella of England’s Economic Heartland. In terms of communications the project includes East-West rail, digital infrastructure as well as the proposed road link. Let me say upfront that in principle I am generally supportive. History has shown that we must be bold in these projects and look to the longer term with infrastructure investment. It is too easy to just focus on the short term, perhaps with vested interest, and not look to the future.

The initial project on the road was launched in a strategic document prepared by the Ministry of Transport under the Coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats in December 2014 and all major political parties have supported the Expressway in the past. If the road is to be built suggested completion is planned for around 2030. Much of the preparatory work for this was undertaken by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and Highways England have now taken it on.

There has been debate over the possible route of the road, particularly at the Oxfordshire end. Much of the rest is agreed and some key faciliatory works already planned or underway. At early stages three potential broad corridors for the route around Oxford were put forward. In September last year the Minister has announced the proposed corridor would be Corridor B and within that discounted B2 leaving B1 and B3 for further investigation. B2 was discounted mainly due to the negative environmental impacts near to Horspath, Wheatley and the Otmoor Nature Reserve which are considered to be particularly difficult to overcome. The Minister has recently confirmed publicly in debate ‘our strong preference is not to cross Otmoor. We have therefore selected options that do not do that; we have given that very clear signal.’ The next stage is to look at detailed routes in the two corridors. Last autumn Highways England held some key stakeholder information events to which parish council representatives and other local councillors were invited. These were ‘to discuss local constraints and opportunities with the technical specialists with a view to gathering additional local intelligence which will be fed into the route options identification and sifting process.’ During this year they will be working to narrow down options.  I understand that there will be a public consultation in the autumn of this year.

At present there are campaign groups working in all potential areas either seeking to support a particular route or to object to a particular route. This is only to be expected with an infrastructure project such as this and the views of all are an important part in the process. For my part, and in the absence of alternative information, I have taken the view that the route should utilise existing roads wherever possible rather than carve a new path through Green Belt land or damage other areas of environmental interest and I have suggested it needs to be routed to the west of Oxford. My rational for my view is that I have long since supported the need for the upgrading of the A34. The accident record alone suggests that we have to do something about this road. I am also aware that congestion on the A34 puts pressure on villages which can be seen as a rat run to avoid the jams. I would be looking for improvements to the A34 along with measure to deter diversions through villages. Together with colleagues I also support the widening of the scope of the project to include the A420. This is another road that needs attention and improvements to the A420 would take pressure off of the A34.

The key focus of the project is on infrastructure to support the business rather than housing. I was pleased to see that when the then Housing Minister wrote last summer to all councils along the arc to look to increase their housing numbers our local councils did not respond positively.

I do not anticipate any real news on this now until later this year. Details of the project can be found online at highwaysengland.co.uk/projects/oxford-cambridge-expressway.

If there is an issue that concerns, you please do let me know. you can email me at howelljm@parliament.uk or write to me at the House of Commons (House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA) or my constituency office (PO Box 84, Watlington, OX49 5XD).