The launch of the draft National Infrastructure Assessment took place in Birmingham, overlooking the site of the city’s station-to-be at Curzon Street on HS2. In the room were all the new Metro Mayors from the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, the West of England, Cambridge and Peterborough and the earlier established London Mayor. It was the first time they had all been in a room together. This points up the way in which infrastructure thinking is being incorporated into local economic and social development.
For the cities and their regions, infrastructure is an essential underpinning to both social integration and economic success. Infrastructure takes many forms: flood defence, power and water supply and of course broadband and telecommunications. All of these are essential in our modern world, but the form of infrastructure which gets most attention is that of physical transport.
This shows how communication methods are complementary rather than competitive. The more we have been able to communicate at a distance, the more that we have come together to live in cities. The more we can email, order online, and get home delivery, the more restaurants there are. Humans are still engaging in physical contact. Markets too require both physical and non-physical communication networks. Selling and ordering can use social and broadband techniques to reach a market for niche and indeed non-niche products. Systems such as Etsy make it possible for local craft sellers to reach a worldwide market, for example. But without a physical distribution system, such selling would be impossible as goods would never arrive.
The need for more bandwidth is easily accepted, and the need for the UK to jump to 5G is an accepted conclusion. This of course also requires physical infrastructure, with more fibre-optic cables, more routers, and greater reach into rural areas. However, it is the development of physical transport infrastructure which gets the most attention, since it is much more disruptive in construction and has far more environmental consequences.
For decades, an integrated transport policy has been sought. John Prescott’s Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions was set up to do exactly that in 1997 but only lasted to 2001. So far, such a policy has remained a pipe dream, and possibly for good reason. This is a cautionary tale for the National Infrastructure Commission; it should aim for integration across the right topics and for the right geographies.
The development of the proposals for HS2 is illustrative. At the outset, this was a transport proposal, designed and evaluated in a solely transport context and focused only on saving time and increasing capacity. The economic impact in the various cities to be linked was an afterthought in both the analysis and the engagement. Yet this is transformational investment and without the engagement of local leaders and communities will fail to reap the kind of benefits which will justify the investment. This means that station locations, development opportunities, interaction with local transport systems, and social impacts are all crucial and require a different kind of thinking.
The devolution agenda has begun to allow that different thinking to start. Programme boards have begun to look at how to maximize the impact of new station investments, and to ensure that stations are in the right place to do this. Both Leeds and Sheffield have pushed for changes to station locations and the routing of the new lines. Liverpool has made an effective case for better linking of the city to Manchester airport and into HS2. Further south, the proposal for reviving a railway between Oxford and Cambridge emerged originally from a consortium of local authorities and agencies, and is now the subject of intense interest and planning. The Commission has now published its final report on how to integrate the planning of the railway – and a new road – with the development of the homes and locations necessary to ensure the continued success of this driver of UK economic success. In producing propositions for the bigger picture, the need to get the local detail right has been a major consideration. From the role of cycling to the development of new local stations, from local bus networks to driverless cars, the cities along this arc, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Northampton and Cambridge have all worked on how the local integration fits into the regional and cross-regional and hence into the national picture. Top down has to meet bottom up if plans are to make sense and be deliverable.
In the end, it is the creation of opportunities which people can grasp which matters. This includes market opening, innovation potential, high quality homes and places, and job creation. Enabling such a range requires in turn the creation of partnerships between communities and developers, infrastructure providers and planners, and allowing for continuing evolution and change.
That’s a tall order and can only be achieved by empowering local institutions as well as national ones. Empowering local authorities to take more control both financially and in partnerships is an essential first step to getting integration between planning and infrastructure, and between local and national transport systems. It’s still a work in progress as all of the Mayors pointed out in Birmingham last month. But progress is being made.
Commissioner, National Infrastructure Commission