Sound the alarm: there is a yawning gap in the Arc. Something that we are failing to talk about; something that could scupper our hopes and dreams for a coherent transformation of the area we currently call…
Well, that’s the first part of the problem. What do we call it?
We tend to talk about the ‘Oxford-Cambridge Arc’ and, the longer that gets used, the more it is likely to stick. But the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government doesn’t like that name, and Milton Keynes also has a strong view on the subject, promoting ‘CaMKOx’ instead (with MK at the heart). At a conference last year, it was even suggested that we should call it ‘The Sausage’, heaven help us.
The point is, the Arc lacks a brand. And, even more importantly, a communications strategy to explain, promote and articulate what that brand stands for.
But the brief for this article was: make it positive, make it practical. So, if LMC were to develop such a strategy, what would it entail?
Four steps to communicating the Oxford-Cambridge Arc
Step 1: We would identify measurable communications objectives. A starter for 10: let’s agree that we want to achieve, by this time next year, a consistent set of high-level messages that encapsulate the inspiring vision for the region and the outcomes we are working towards.
Step 2: We would start work on those messages. But the shorthand labels we use to describe the big ticket infrastructure projects or built assets – such as one million new homes by 2050, a new route for the A428 and a proposed £1bn+ railway extension – are not the way to do this. These aren’t messages. They’re big, scary, incomprehensible numbers.
Step 3: We would identify and start to prioritise our target audiences. We have a huge range of stakeholders, and all our messaging needs to be tailored to their interests and needs. Each will experience varying levels of impact, depending on where they live and work.
Step 4: Finally, let’s recognise that, once the high-level vision is clear, the conversation needs to move very quickly to a more local level.
This is the big opportunity, as we see it.
Communities worry about displacement or disruption. Concerns about environmental and ecological impact are raised. The capacity and ability to even deliver something at the size and cost of the proposed development along the Arc is questioned too.
Changing the narrative
What is it about a place that makes people want to live, work and relax there? What are the unique characteristics of the places along the Arc that should be maintained and enhanced? And what are the factors that are most important to communities?
Ultimately, the discussion should be focused on what needs to change and how development can make the cities, towns and villages within the area more successful.
This opens a two-way dialogue, bringing people into the decision-making process and creating ownership over the plans being discussed.
Within this process, it is then more effective to break down the specific elements of the proposals so they can be discussed in more detail. This provides greater transparency and allows both sides to improve mutual understanding of the issues.
With that in mind, the Oxford to Cambridge railway conversation could become about last-mile connectivity, commuter distances, work/life balance and the benefits of connecting to a wider network. Rather than discussing the number of houses required, talk about affordability and design. This should consider demographic changes, such as an ageing population. Ideas for the road network could instead determine whether current demand for vehicles and regular journeys will even be the same in the coming decades, before considering further development.
Some of the above points have been presented already. However, the format of the message is central to its success. Many networking events and conferences have been focused on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, but these are more aimed at political and business audiences. Let’s get communities into the conversation as soon as possible.
Just don’t call it the Sausage.
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