In days gone by, it was said that you could walk from Oxford to Cambridge on college land, such was the power and wealth of these elite centres of learning. In the age of steam, academics trundled between the two cities along the so called Varsity line via Bicester, Bletchley and Bedford, until, in 1967, the line was axed as part of Dr Beeching’s railway cutbacks. Ironically, in that same year, the green light was given to create a new high-tech ‘hub’ at Milton Keynes, halfway between Oxford and Cambridge. Forty years on, the dynamic new town, already home to 200,000 people, is expected to see its population almost double in the next 25 years, under future development plans outlined in the new South-East Regional Spatial Strategy (2006?2026), to be published in July.
The establishment of a new east-west ‘brain line’, linking Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge, is central to the Government’s plans to establish the Oxford 2 Cambridge (O2C) Arc as ‘the largest and most successful knowledge based economy in Europe, with realistic ambitions to become the world leader’. Easier said than done, of course. There are huge logistical and funding problems to be resolved before the whole plan comes together, and it may well be another 40 years before the last rail is laid.
But the grand vision took a major leap towards becoming reality when, in March, a £300,000 feasibility study commissioned by the East West Rail Consortium into the viability of building the first, western section of the proposed new rail link from Oxford to Milton Keynes estimated cost £100 million?£135 million concluded that the scheme was ‘credible, deliverable and affordable’, with a genuine prospect of having services up and running along the entire length by 2012. It will retrace the route of the original Varsity line from Oxford to Milton Keynes Central, with new hubs being built at Bicester North, Aylesbury North, Claydon, Winslow/Horwood and Newton Longville.
It has taken more than 10 years of intensive planning, negotiation and analysis, for the East West Rail Consortium comprising 21 local authorities, together with the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA), South East England and East of England Development Agencies (SEEDA and EEDA), Network Rail, O2C Arc and Hutchison Ports to arrive at this crucial stage in their bid to deliver the Government’s long-term vision of a strategic rail route linking East Anglia with central, southern and western England. But Richard Ward, senior transport planner at Buckinghamshire County Council, is confident that, given the widespread support expressed by all parties involved in the recent public enquiry stages of the South-East Regional Spatial Strategy, the momentum for the realisation of this first part of the scheme is now virtually unstoppable. ‘All that remains is for the Department of Transport and Network Rail to formally confirm their commitment to underwrite the project, and provided that happens by the end of 2008, the target date of 2012 can still be met.’
The beauty of the western third of the proposed new route is that the old railway line still exists, and, in some parts, is even operational, both for passenger and freight use. Also key to the viability of the project is that the cost of laying the new track and the even more onerous cost of installing the new signalling system required would be funded to a large extent by a new ‘roof tax’, to be paid by the developers of the 34,000 new houses scheduled for construction in North Buckinghamshire by 2031. New develop-ment will centre on five major ‘multi-modal transport interchanges’ at Bicester, Aylesbury, Winslow, Newton Longville and Milton Keynes.
But the huge expansion envisaged will inevitably have a massive impact on the rural property market as well. In his capacity as advisor to the consortium of landowners and developers who have backed the concept of a western rail link since the beginning (and whose contribution to its funding will be crucial to its success), Buckinghamshire estate agent Simon Wilkinson foresees the new rail link having a dramatic effect on property prices, both in the towns where the new transport hubs will be located, as well as in the rural back waters of North Buckinghamshire. House prices in pretty villages such as Claydon, the Horwoods and Quainton, which are within a short drive of the proposed new rail hubs currently well below those of the Oxford area can be expected to rise substantially, once construction of the line gets under way.
This is no pipe dream the commuter town of Aylesbury has already seen tremendous growth as a direct result of the proposed expansion of Milton Keynes. As the only train operating company to be granted a 20-year franchise, Chiltern Railways is one of the major success stories of rail privatisation. The company is set to build a new station three miles north-west of Aylesbury Town station, close to the major new development of 3,000 houses being built at Berryfields by a consortium headed by Wimpey, Keir and Martin Grant Homes, the funding for which is already in place. This line could be extended further north to join a rebuilt Oxford-Bletchley line, and Chiltern Railways has made no secret of the company’s long term aspirations to reach Milton Keynes.
David Jackson of Savills acted as planning consultant to the developers at Berryfields, and he foresees massive potential for growth in both the commercial and residential sectors in and around the town. With urban regeneration and greenfield development both envisaged in the new Regional Spatial Strategy for Milton Keynes, he also expects to see property prices rising, not just in the immediate environs of the conurbation, but in villages such as Aspley Guise and Woburn Sands across the county border in Bedfordshire still one of the South-East’s most under-rated counties.