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6 August, 2018 - 21:40 By Tony Quested

Corridors of power worth billions to the region and the UK economy: But what’s the brand?

The recent CPIER interim report offered the view that the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor had a crucial role to play in the regional and national economies, leveraging the potential of an international hub centred on Stansted Airport and combining the power of London and Cambridge’s high growth business markets – not least the science & technology community in Cambridge.

The commission felt that if the necessary powers to build new housing and infrastructure were provided, along with talent development – and based on the increased international reach of Stansted – an extra 400,000 jobs by 2036 could be created in the area along with the creation of 10 new ‘unicorn’ firms – businesses valued at more than $1 billion.

Cambridge has already produced 16 $bn businesses following Darktrace’s elevation to that status recently and more are heading in the same direction.

Stansted Airport owner MAG is keeping to its side of the bargain with massive investment in the hub’s infrastructure and new routes opening up key global trade markets for companies along the corridor. Emirates to Dubai and onwards to 150 routes; Primera Air to New York, Boston and Toronto – and on the radar China and India direct services.

Just park thoughts about the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse for the present and revisit the CPIER projections: Almost half a million more jobs for the corridor in 18 years if we get the infrastructure issues right.

Now broker in the Golden Triangle, Oxford2Cambridge Arc or CaMkOx Arc – the latest iteration of the Cambridge/Milton Keynes/Oxford trade highway.
You won’t need an Oxbridge honours degree to recognise that Cambridge is key to both growth corridors.

Property consultancy Bidwells has shared with Business Weekly a new research White Paper – ‘Branding the CaMkOx Arc’ – which it feels should be the roadmap for development of this East-West corridor. Its views have already been endorsed by LEPs along the CaMkOx corridor.

Bidwells argues that the name could be the game if the region is to gain the same international traction as other UK corridors, even though it has more of the ingredients required to create a UK Silicon Valley.

Unsurprisingly, Bidwells’ latest research finds the key to the CaMkOx brand is the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the magnets at either end of the corridor drawing the media’s attention to the bold transport initiatives being proposed. It is Oxbridge’s global brand appeal which attracts the world’s best talent and this, in turn, draws in innovators and investors, it argues.

Bidwells says the challenge for the Arc’s partners is to now find a brand proposition that harnesses the two university cities’ appeal but also articulates the wider region’s attributes. 

This provides benefits to the region’s other locations, including the deep and entrepreneurial business base of Milton Keynes which partners perfectly with the Oxbridge institutions and brand. 

For the regional vision to impact it must tell a new story about the corridor, says Bidwells – and it must be a narrative which all partners believe in. 

‘Branding the CaMkOx Arc’ is the second paper to be released by Bidwells in a programme of research, drawing on the agency’s deep experience in the region. 

The report says that Oxford and Cambridge “have global brand appeal and attract the world’s best talent, which in turn draws in investors. The tangible result of this is seen in inward investment and business activity statistics.”

It adds that the Treasury has already responded to the National Infrastructure Commission’s compelling November 2017 report, which made a strong economic case for investing in new road and rail transport infrastructure between the two cities, with a set of initial funding commitments.

Local council and Local Enterprise Partnership leaders are now embarking on the process of setting a joined up economic vision for the Arc. Progress towards meeting the NIC’s recommendation to deliver an Arc-wide ‘Strategic Partnership Board’ this summer is critical, so momentum generated by the 2017 Autumn Budget is not lost.

Bidwells argues: “An economic vision and strategic spatial plan are necessary but technical in nature. Brand positioning is jargon-free and characterises a place in terms of the experience on offer for people and businesses locating there. It differentiates an area from other great places and is much more than just a name and a logo.

“We believe that delivering a strong co-ordinated brand vision would be a powerful message to the world that the multitude of stakeholders in the CaMkOx region can work in partnership.”

The NIC’s Autumn 2017 report recommended opening the Varsity Rail line connecting Oxford and Cambridge by 2030 and accelerating the development of the East West Expressway Road. 

The Treasury responded instantly but made it clear that influencers across the Arc had to move fast to build on the Autumn Budget and get tangible plans in place to show the vision could become reality. How to finance the evolution of the Arc goes hand in hand with getting the buy-in of key parties along the way to deliver road and rail links, enough affordable housing and a cost-effective infrastructure in terms of basic utilities and IT.

Bidwells reports that the NIC’s recommendation to deliver a Strategic Partnership Board to lead the development of the Arc-wide vision “does appear to be on track.”

LEP leaders across the Arc have been in dialogue with the Department for Business Innovation and Skills to put flesh on the strategic bones. The aim is to develop a demonstrable blueprint by the end of this year.

As Bidwells articulates, the board has the challenge of pulling this visionary work together and aligning the interests of the 28 local authorities, three Local Enterprise Partnership areas and a Mayoral Combined Authority. This technical and socio-economic research is vital to the future strategic direction of the Arc given that it will eventually provide a framework for future investment decisions.

Bidwells adds: “Perhaps more of a challenge is articulating this shared vision; a vision that is recognisable by stakeholders in the region but more importantly meaningful to outside parties – inward investors, ranging from infrastructure funders to R & D corporates, as well as globally mobile highly-skilled workers.”

The investment imperative

As Business Weekly reported in June, the EY Attractiveness Survey for the UK showed the importance of inward investment, particularly in light of the Brexit chaos.

The EY research found that over one-third of investors globally expect the UK’s attractiveness to deteriorate over the coming three years and that after 2020, “around 50 per cent of foreign companies might move assets out of the UK.” This highlights the importance of putting measures in place now to counter this potential outflow.

However, the EY research also found that in the sectors of R & D and manufacturing, the UK was “able to compete effectively for investment” when presenting a competitive offer. 

Bidwells adds: “The Arc has an important role to play in attracting and retaining such investment; Cambridge and Oxford saw the fastest year on year growth in FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in the UK in 2017. The academic credentials of these two locations are fundamental to this investment.”
Bidwells believes the CaMkOx region has a richer offer than comparable brands – such as the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine or the so-called Blue Banana, a corridor stretching from north of London through Belgium, the Netherlands, western Germany and Switzerland.

It argues that if stakeholders continue to try to derive a name for the Arc solely from the region’s major towns and cities or geographical locations and landmarks “the Arc is destined to be more of a banana than a powerhouse.”

Bidwells also points out that the CaMkOx Arc is not a new incarnation, but was an initiative launched by regional development agencies 15 years ago before they were disbanded. Now the vision has been reignited with gusto. But Bidwells is calling for large chunks of substance to be injected into the blueprint. It says: “To a large extent there is little real about the Arc. 

“It is a geographical area banded as a single entity by planned infrastructure and a desire to maximise the above average potential of the component locations.

“However, rather than take the starting point as the somewhat arbitrary geography of the area, perhaps a more corporate branding approach should be considered.
“Taking this approach, the Arc’s core values may be summarised as being an eclectic mix of academic, high-skilled, leading edge and historic. These attributes are, in large part, derived from the presence of the world leading academic institutions of Oxford and Cambridge. 

“The power of these academic credentials is underlined by EY’s research findings and further corroborated by the latest TechNation survey, which found that technology businesses in Oxford and Cambridge clusters identified the presence of the respective universities as the primary strength of the locations.”

While towns in the Arc each have their own world-class business specialisms – high performance engineering in Northampton and MK for example – it is still the powerful proposition for corporates and talent that make the Oxbridge card the most obvious one to play globally.

Bidwells says: “The corporate branding approach suggests the Oxbridge banner is the brand proposition  that  will  be  the most compelling for an outside audience of investors and globally mobile talent as they consider the opportunities presented by the ambitious infrastructure and housing delivery plans for the area as a whole over the coming decades.”

Telling a new old story

Bidwells argues, however, that creating an Oxbridge focused brand identity for the Arc requires telling an old story much differently. “The brand proposition which has been the preserve of two cities will need to evolve into a narrative for the region and its future potential.

“This represents a challenge: The strengths of Oxford and Cambridge’s ancient and very different qualities cannot be diluted. Similarly, it will be essential to protect and sustain the identity of other tows or villages across the Arc – particularly those that will grow as new housing is delivered.”

The Arc straddles the distinctive, linked geographies of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, the four unitary authorities of Milton Keynes, Bedford, Central Bedfordshire and Luton, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Buy-in is needed across that entire area regardless of individual interests.

Bidwells concludes: “As a brand ‘Oxbridge’ is already globally recognised and presents an ideal shop window. While going this route appears, from a branding perspective, the logical option, the political challenge is to make this palatable for the LEPs and councils along the corridor.”

Bidwells’ recommendations

Maintain momentum by delivering on the NIC’s suggested timescales: Governance structures must soon be in place to make key decisions on the economic vision and brand for the Arc. Progress is being made but the Strategic Partnership Board should be formed on time and an independent Chair in place. The first six-month formal update is also overdue.

Demonstrate great collaboration in delivery: How bodies are perceived as delivering the economic and brand vision, in collaboration with formal and informal stakeholders, is as important as the brand itself.

Bring on board the private sector when building a brand vision: The Arc’s formal stakeholders are all talking regularly but business leaders (outside of the LEP) appear to be currently excluded. The private sector’s interests must be represented and its expertise and understanding harnessed. Business can put pressure on government to maintain investment.

Reframe the Oxbridge proposition: Both Cambridge and Oxford University have ensured the long-term stability of the two cities and more recently their rapid growth by ensuring their place at the heart of the cutting edge of research and business growth. For the Arc to best leverage these global brands, a new story must be told about how improved transport links between the two will benefit both institutions and enable locations in between to share the advantage.

Prioritise the brand by lifting it above the spatial plan: The CaMkOx region will be a great place to live, play and work. It will fit together spatially. But that is a basic requirement. Clearly define what makes it different from other great places to live and put that front and centre.

• Business Weekly is grateful to Bidwells’ Research Director, Sue Foxley and PR manager Ben Lee for sharing the report and photographic material contained in it.

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