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Control of infrastructure projects needs to reside locally

Power to the people

By Bridget Rosewell  

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Hepburn/robertharding/REX/Shutterstock (5662428a) Grand Central Shopping Centre at night, Birmingham New Street Railway Station, Birmingham, West Midlands, England, United Kingdom, Europe VARIOUS

The launch of the draft National Infrastructure Assessment, which examines the country’s long-term economic infrastructure needs, took place in Birmingham, overlooking the site of the city’s new HS2 station-to-be. For the first time, all the new Metro Mayors from the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, the West of England, Cambridge and Peterborough and the earlier established London Mayor were in the same room. 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 that gets most attention is transport.

This shows how communication methods are complementary rather than competitive. The more we have been able to communicate at a distance, the more we have come together in cities. The more we can email, order online, and have home delivery services, 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. Websites 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 evident, and the need for the UK to jump to 5G is clear. This of course requires physical infrastructure, with more fibre-optic cables, more routers, and greater reach into rural areas. However, developing physical transport infrastructure gets the most attention since its construction and environmental consequences are more disruptive.

For decades, Britain has sought an integrated transport policy. John Prescott’s Department of the 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 distant prospect, 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 places.

The development of HS2 is illustrative. At the outset, it was a transport proposal, designed and evaluated solely in those terms and focused only on saving time and increasing capacity. The economic impact in the various cities to be linked was an afterthought. Yet this is such a large investment, unless it is done in keeping with the needs of the towns and people it will serve, then the investment won’t pay off. 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 maximise 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 links to Manchester airport and into HS2. Further south, the proposal for reviving a railway line between Oxford and Cambridge emerged originally from a consortium of local authorities and agencies, and is 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. 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 studied how 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, the creation of opportunities that people can grasp is what matters. For that, you need a partnership between communities and developers, infrastructure providers and planners, and all of these groups must be open to the possibility of change.

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 in October.


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