Oxford to Cambridge Expressway

Tagged with: Open: Open Transport: Transport SAC: SAC SSSI: SSSI

Overview

To close a "missing link" in the strategic road network, the Government has proposed a new major road – an Expressway – to reduce journey times between Oxford and Cambridge. Between the A34 at Oxford and the M1 at Milton Keynes, different route corridors are under consideration. If selected as the preferred option, some of these could lead to a route that would be disastrous for nature. This is not just about a new road: statements from the Government and National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) suggest the preferred route is likely to be the focus for major new urban growth, perhaps including one or more new towns.

Sites that might potentially be affected by one or more of the options include our nature reserve at Otmoor, two internationally important sites (Oxford Meadows Special Area of Conservation ("SAC") and Cothill Fen SAC), numerous woodland and wetland SSSIs and rare lowland meadow habitats in the Ray Valley.

The area has been threatened by new roads before. Forty years ago, local people won an important battle to make sure the M40 went around this landscape. A lot has changed since: twenty years of work has turned the Otmoor nature reserve into a nationally important wetland full of breeding waders like lapwings and redshanks, with droves of golden plovers and wintering ducks in the colder months.

We are working with partners including the Wildlife Trusts and Butterfly Conservation to ensure that the historic M40 victory is not undone by this latest proposal.

Local people have started a #SaveOtmoor campaign and Parliamentary petition. We welcome the speed and strength of the local community’s reaction to the potential threat to Otmoor – it shows the depth of feeling people who live here have for this nature-rich landscape and believe Highways England should take note.

Map

Why is it worth fighting for?

The area of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire potentially affected by the Expressway is home to some wonderful wildlife. The RSPB has invested 20 years in restoring Otmoor to a wetland oasis, in keeping with the landscape that once inspired Lewis Carroll to write “Alice in Wonderland”. Otmoor RSPB reserve now has breeding bitterns and marsh harriers, recently returned after an absence of centuries. Spring on Otmoor is a riot of calling lapwings, redshanks, and drumming snipe – a rare sound now in southern England. In winter, the moor is alive with the sound of wigeon, teal and golden plovers, while peregrines, merlins, harriers, and barn owls are regularly seen. 

Beyond the edges of our reserve the wider landscape of the Ray Valley is home to nationally rare and declining species like curlews and black hairstreak butterflies. Our partners, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, manage an important group of lowland meadows rich in wild flowers and herbs: a habitat almost gone from much of England. South and east of Otmoor is the Bernwood Forest, a collection of large woodland SSSIs precious for their woodland butterflies and bats. These include breeding sites for one of the rarest mammals in Britain - Bechstein’s bats.

Curlew Numenius arquata, bathing in shallow pool, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria, England

Our position

The likelihood of a major new road across any part of Otmoor might be relatively small right now, but it hasn’t been ruled out by Highways England and we can’t afford to make any assumptions. 

A major highway like this takes a lot of land, so direct loss of habitat could be a major threat. When high road noise levels are introduced to formerly quiet landscapes, research shows breeding birds can suffer. And because of their width and high traffic volumes and speeds, such roads often form a serious barrier to the movement of many animals. Air and water quality can suffer locally as well, with insidious effects on semi-natural habitats like lowland meadows, rivers and streams.

We've made it clear to Highways England that if the Otmoor basin becomes part of the preferred route we will fight it at every possible step. And it's already clear that local people feel as passionately about this as we do.

But this isn't just about Otmoor. Our comments on the corridor options reflect the big picture, looking at the larger landscape areas that are richest in important sites, habitats and species. We are working with allies like the Wildlife Trusts and Butterfly Conservation to make sure we're as closely aligned as possible on the most important issues.

The RSPB believes it's possible to select a corridor that would avoid any risk of causing harm to most of the nationally and internationally important wildlife present across the landscape and avoid creating a barrier between individual sites. 

The principle of whether there should be an Expressway at all is not something we've been invited to comment on, and it's outside Highways England's remit. But we do think the Department for Transport and the National Infrastructure Commission need to explain very clearly how building this road can be compatible with achieving large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that we need to deliver as a society, to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. This is especially important if the Expressway is to help facilitate large-scale urban growth, as any "headroom" the new road creates in terms of freeing up the strategic and local road network could be rapidly taken up again with extra traffic from new development.

How you can help

There is no public consultation planned on the corridor options, though Highways England has said it will consult local communities on route options within the preferred corridor in 2019. In the meantime, if you are keen for your voice to be heard, the RSPB recommends writing to your MP, and (assuming he is not your MP anyway) sending a copy to Iain Stewart MP, the Member for Milton Keynes South and the Government’s champion for the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor. You can check who is your MP and how to contact them at www.theyworkforyou.com

We are not expecting local people to support one Expressway corridor over another because different communities may well have different opinions and concerns about the options. However, here are a few over-arching things you could consider asking your MP to push for, that would help (below). Refer to our full response under the downloads tab for more detail, and do please take the time to make these points in your own words:

  • That full public consultation should be done now before the preferred corridor is chosen, not later just on preferred routes;

  • That Strategic Environmental Assessment* (“SEA”) of the corridor options should be carried out, to ensure that less environmentally damaging options are not excluded from further consideration too early in the process;

  • That Highways England should select a preferred corridor that best avoids and minimises impacts on nature – particularly, nationally and internationally important protected sites;

  • That they should also set themselves an objective of achieving a net gain in biodiversity, not merely one of no net loss as at present. This would be consistent with current national planning and environment policies;

  • That the choice of preferred corridor must account for likely urban growth scenarios, not just development already in Local Plans. The latter represents only a small part of what the Government intends for the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor;

  • Finally, you could ask your MP to explain the compatibility of building a major new road and promoting high levels of urban growth with legal obligations to reduce carbon emissions, which are especially needed in the transport sector;

*If you’re confused about SEA and EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) it’s worth knowing that EIA will be done once the preferred route is chosen and the designs have been well worked up – but by then, different and potentially less damaging alternatives may have been dropped from further consideration. Doing SEA of the overall programme beforehand would help ensure the best overall choice of solution is made before options are narrowed down and proposals are worked up in full detail. For more information visit the government's guidance page here

Timeline

  • Summer 2018
    A decision on the preferred corridor is expected. Development of route options, public consultation, and selection of a preferred route will follow.
  • April 2018
    The RSPB’s response on the corridor options is submitted.
  • February 2018
    After a second meeting of the SRG, Highways England consults the RSPB and other environmental stakeholders on the corridor options.
  • December 2017
    Highways England creates the Strategic Environment Stakeholder Reference Group (SRG) for the Expressway and invites the RSPB to participate.
  • November 2017
    The Chancellor’s autumn budget statement announces 1M new homes to be built in the Oxford to Cambridge Arc.

Further reading

Reserves affected:

Useful links:

The Government’s most recent report outlining the case for the Expressway can be found here.

Key species affected:

Partner websites: