Ahead of this season’s party conference, Jason Pavey, Market Director- Local Transport at Atkins sits down with Prospect to take a closer look at the road ahead.
Has there been a take up on infrastructure planning at the local level?
There has been some movement, but I haven’t yet seen a surge of decisions regarding infrastructure. That being said, we are seeing a number of steps in the right direction. For example, there’s much more collaboration between combined authorities, devolved regions and industry. But while there is a centred sense of purpose, there’s still a long way to go and I think the challenge for these devolved administrations is to make sure that their voice is still being heard.
So just to build on this, could a smarter approach to infrastructure planning improve regional growth?
Regional growth is really about homes and jobs. Our concern is getting the key pieces of infrastructure in place that will enable and support growth – roads, rail, energy, affordable houses and social infrastructure like schools and community facilities. Local authorities, developers and government agencies need to be more coordinated in how they plan and implement this infrastructure. A good example of a local authorities work with key stakeholders to ensure infrastructure provides maximum benefit, is the work we’re doing with Leeds City Council and its partners in preparation for the Leeds Station development.
How can we make sure that transport systems remain fit for purpose?
Change is happening at an amazing rate, but we need to rethink our approach to future infrastructure planning. The answers must go beyond retrofitting new technologies and it’s quite a challenge. For example, if you take a closer look at the connection between housing and transport, what does the adoption of autonomous vehicles mean for the planning of new housing developments? We can be much more pro-active by planning out infrastructure projects that bring in both physical and digital technology together. Things like mobility as a service can then become a solution to a wide range of issues such as air quality and traffic congestion.
Could you talk a bit more about how this could work?
Technology offers up different ways of looking at a system. So, by looking at transport systems in their entirety, rather than in silos, we can make these connections. To use air quality as an example, Atkins did a mobility as a service live lab experiment in Cambridge. The results illustrated that, if easy to use solutions like end-to-end journey planning are provided, then you can get people out of cars and onto public transport. This has a demonstrable positive impact on air quality. If we build on those opportunities, then those solutions will become accessible on an even wider scale.
The potential of autonomous cars has taken root in the public imagination but are there any other emerging technologies that are worth taking a closer look at?
I don’t think the idea of mobility as a service is necessarily well known yet from a layperson’s perspective but there are examples of different regions moving in that direction. In the North West, Atkins have been working with Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) on certain aspects of it. We’ve also been working with the Department for Transport on a smart ticketing programme across the rail network which makes it easier for customers to purchase tickets rather than having to rely on antiquated paper-based systems.
So what kind of support do you think local authorities would need to get that change in motion?
Local industrial strategies are key to developing strong regional identities. Having a strong political perspective, will help clarify the purpose of the region which will subsequently help determine what infrastructure is needed. Financing is also very important. While we need to avoid ringfencing in funding, the more we can offer certainty, the more this will attract a broader mix of public and private sector investment.
I think local authorities are also looking to be innovative in the way they consider value capture and different financing streams. If successful, this alleviates the burden of centralised government funding. But we must be careful. While new projects can promote growth, we also need to maintain existing infrastructure through strong asset management and sustained investment. In effect, it is critical that our entire transport system rather than just the new components are fit for purpose.
If we return to the idea of a call to action. Where do you hope to see transport infrastructure on the political agenda during the upcoming party conferences?
There are three explicit building blocks from my perspective. Supporting local and national investment is vital to driving forward growth. A public commitment so that we can invest in the skills and technology needed to facilitate this process would be welcome. I’m also keen to see a renewed commitment to supporting the regions. Lastly, I would like to see more shared priorities between regional stakeholders. Irrespective of the Brexit outcome, we need a commitment to investing in infrastructure and supporting regional economic growth. In my opinion, local industrial strategies are key to establishing this purpose, identity and regional vision.
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