15.02.2023 /

Our opportunity to support the UK’s global growth ambitions

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Economic growth has always relied on transport and connectivity. The canals of Mesopotamia were fundamental to its foundation as the world’s first civilisation. Roman roads literally paved the way for the greatest empire the world has ever seen, and the Silk Routes created a global path for commerce in a time when many had never ventured further than the end of their road. 

The essential power of connection remains no weaker today. When new flight corridors open, connecting business in cities and countries for the first time, they are rightly heralded as catalysts for economic cooperation and opportunity. Even the much-lauded shift to home working barely dented the public enthusiasm for getting out and meeting people: 359 million rail passenger journeys were made in Great Britain in the latest reported quarter. [1]

As the UK looks to define its role in the 21st century and beyond, transport has a critical role to play in helping achieve these ambitions and accelerate national growth.


Life sciences – the UK’s panacea for growth?

The UK’s traditional growth drivers are slowing. Tony Danker of the CBI last week referred to the British economy as “flatlining”. So what does the future of Britain look like for 2023 and beyond – and what are the solutions to get the economy going?

The Financial Times[2], Economist[3], and others have suggested the UK’s life sciences are the answer. Last year the Government launched its ‘Life Sciences Vision’ with ambitions to grow UK science and technology R&D and support the medical tech sector. The potential gains are huge: maintaining the UK’s status as a Science Superpower could bring an additional £90bn to the UK economy every year. 

But the UK is at a critical inflection point; invest and accelerate to become a life sciences superpower and global leader or fall behind other nations.


Constraints on growth

The corridor from Oxford through Milton Keynes to Cambridge is the heart of the UK’s life sciences sector. It’s an area of huge potential with world leading universities and an international reputation. The Cambridge Biomedical Campus is the largest medical research and health science centre in Europe. Oxford is home to the Jenner Institute where the AstraZeneca vaccine was developed.

But both Oxford and Cambridge are mid-sized UK cities of less than 200,000 people, a drop in the ocean compared to tech clusters like Silicon Valley with over 3 million people. And connectivity between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge is poor.

There is global competition for talent across the life sciences sector. Places like San Francisco, Berkeley and Boston are attractive destinations for UK scientists. Meanwhile, the science clusters between Oxford and Cambridge are struggling to access the people needed to grow. Even with a skilled UK workforce already working in this sector, retention is a worry: housing costs in Oxford and Cambridge are among the highest in the UK and available homes are scarce.

To attract the talent needed to enable growth across the region, individuals and families need to see opportunities beyond a single job.  Start-ups often fail – it’s a badge of honour in Silicon Valley! – so there needs to be a sufficiently large employment ecosystem that allows people to think about where they will find their second and third jobs.  Oxford and Cambridge individually don’t have sufficient breadth to achieve this.  But Oxford and Cambridge – combined with Milton Keynes and Bedford and the smaller towns in between – could provide this employment ecosystem.     

But poor public transport connections are why this ecosystem doesn’t currently exist.  Journeys from more affordable and buoyant housing areas like Milton Keynes and Bedford take a long time: public transport options are limited, so people living in the area have little choice but to use a car, leading to congested local roads. Bedford and Cambridge are only 30 miles apart, but the fastest public transport option between the two is a 90-minute bus journey. East West Rail services will shorten that journey to around 35 minutes – and importantly reduce the reliance on car ownership in the area.

New lab space across the corridor is also needed – but without the infrastructure and transport connections between Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford and Cambridge the sector will be confined to their at-capacity labs in Oxford and Cambridge.


Transport’s role in accelerating growth

Infrastructure – particularly transport – can help unlock these constraints. Connecting the science hubs of Oxford and Cambridge with the towns and cities in between will help attract the skilled workforce needed. It will provide them with somewhere to live and with ways to get around – including travelling to work.

Last week, the Government announced funding for the newly formed Oxford to Cambridge Pan-Regional Partnership, which cited East West Rail as “important strategic infrastructure” to meet these ambitions. Pascal Soriot, CEO of Astra Zeneca, has said: “The railway between Oxford and Cambridge would be the most impactful development to support innovation, joining two powerhouses of academic science.”

Local authorities between Oxford and Cambridge have been calling for better public transport links to strengthen its world-leading research hubs since the 1990s. In the 2020s, it’s time to deliver.

This article was originally published in New Civil Engineer, 15 February 2023.


[1] https://dataportal.orr.gov.uk/statistics/usage/passenger-rail-usage/
[2] Financial Times, 5th January 2023, The UK’s dream of becoming a science superpower:  https://www.ft.com/content/a8b2c939-88da-45ca-a74e-9f49bb8c8c1c
[3] The Economist, 20th July 2022, The life-sciences industry is a jewel in Britain’s economy: https://www.economist.com/britain/2022/07/20/the-life-sciences-industry-is-a-jewel-in-britains-economy