Achieving the economic and infrastructural development envisioned for the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Arc whilst restoring its biodiversity will be challenging. MKA’s Ecologist, Lydia Murphy, highlights some of the environmental factors that need to be addressed.
As development in the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Arc gathers momentum, the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems within the Arc must be given equal consideration alongside roads, railways, business growth, and housing.
It is widely acknowledged that early consideration of ecology and biodiversity is best-practice within the development process, and will lead to the best outcomes for all parties. This is no different for the Arc, although of course, the scales at which we are working are far greater.
The natural environment has already been explicitly acknowledged by the Arc’s key exponents. In a joint declaration published in March 2019, four policy pillars are set out to guide development: Productivity, Place-making, Connectivity, and Environment. The Environment pillar commits to achieving development within the Arc while leaving the local environment in a better state for future generations.
Like every other aspect of development in the Arc, this commitment is extremely ambitious and will be challenging to meet. The building of one million new homes within the region will inevitably lead to building on open countryside and greenfield land. All new housing developments (as well as the road and rail projects) will have biodiversity net gain as one of their deliverables, as mandated in the draft Environment Bill.
This is why, now more than ever, developers need to be accounting for biodiversity in the very earliest stages of development. Extension of existing towns and cities and creation of entirely new settlements will need sound strategies in place that protect or at the very least replace existing high-value natural habitats. If biodiversity net gain is to be achieved across the Arc, it is also vital that new havens and corridors for wildlife are created within developments. Think woodlands, wetlands and meadows in the middle of towns, bat and bird boxes integrated into every building, and park landscaping teeming with invertebrates. Dare to imagine all these features and more joined together with surrounding countryside via wildflower-rich verges, green roofs and bridges, native hedgerows and river corridors that run through towns and villages, and across and alongside roads and railways.
It would be no use to pretend that the five counties of the Arc hold huge swathes of untouched wilderness and wildlife habitat. There are of course areas and sites which hold significant biodiversity value, and impacts on these places should be avoided at all costs. However, so much of our natural environment has become degraded through agricultural intensification, fragmentation, pollution and neglect. Nationally we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows and 90% of our wetlands, and populations of birds and other wildlife have followed a similar trajectory. Economic investment in the Arc region is an opportunity to regenerate our countryside alongside building the economy. To demonstrate that it is possible for both nature and economic interests to thrive in the same landscape.
Economic growth and nature recovery must occur in tandem if the promised economic heartland of the Arc is to be sustained for future generations. It goes beyond conserving protected species and providing attractive places for people to live and work. We need a functional, integrated natural environment in the Arc that will help us cope with the mounting pressures of climate change and maintain healthy soils and clean water. Despite its challenges, planning for natural capital must take place at a regional scale, across municipal boundaries, if we are to realise the full potential of natural capital growth in the Arc. These natural assets will be as important to the longevity and sustainability of the Arc as roads and railways, and ones that future generations living and working in the Arc will thank us for.
MKA’s Biodiversity Consultancy