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If cities are in control of infrastructure spending, what does it mean for business?

A panel of experts discussed the matter at the Conservative Party conference

By Alex Dean  

This article was produced in association with Rail Delivery Group

Read a companion piece, “Britain’s railways are a success—let’s keep it up,” here

When cities are given more power to make their own spending decisions, businesses benefit. Some businesses want to work across regions—and infrastructure must be planned accordingly. When it comes to creating thriving local economies, transport is key. These were some of the points made at Prospect’s Conservative Party Conference event, “If cities are in control of infrastructure spending, what does it mean for business?”, held on 4th October.

On the panel were Paul Plummer, Chief Executive, Rail Delivery Group; Councillor Bob Sleigh, Chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority; Sarah Whitney, Founding Director, Metro Dynamics; and Jason Pavey, Market Director Local Transport, Atkins. The discussion was chaired by Stephen Hammond, MP for Wimbledon and member of the Treasury Select Committee.

“If cities are in control of infrastructure spending, that’s a positive thing for business.” So argued Pavey, before stating that devolution is “a very positive thing, in the main.” Whitney agreed, stating that the future is bright: “Our cities—particularly those which have embraced devolution—are very well-placed.”


Sleigh © Carrera Commercial Photography

But there are challenges—lots of them. For one thing, Sleigh said, “Business does not recognise local government boundaries.” This means that a region cannot rely on its own strong infrastructure: links between regions are needed to ensure workers can move seamlessly between them. This is no small feat—not when, according to Plummer, “Collaboration between different local partners is hard work.” He did explain, though, that “it’s not impossible.” An audience member said “You may have great local transport—but unless it connects your region with others, it’s no good.”

From left to right: Whitney, Hammond and Plummer

From left to right: Whitney, Hammond and Plummer © Carrera Commercial Photography

Our panel discussed one of the biggest—and most controversial—transport projects in the pipeline currently: High Speed Two. Plummer argued that it will not conflict with the aims of the national rail network “at all,” but said: “We can’t get into this mind-set that HS2 is going to deliver everything. Of course it isn’t.” Moving on, Sleigh said that he was optimistic about what the Buses Bill, which concerns the provision and interconnectivity of bus services, might offer. These issues are key: as Sleigh said, “We know we cost business an awful lot of money if we have a poor transport system.”

An audience member asked whether the introduction of metro mayors, a distinctive feature of David Cameron and George Osborne’s approach to devolution, could cause economic uncertainty, what with a city’s leader being up for re-election every few years. This is one way in which devolution may harm, rather than help, local business. Whitney replied that “the proof will be in the pudding. We can’t now imagine London with a mayor.”

From left to right: Sleigh, Whitney, Hammond, Plummer and Pavey

From left to right: Sleigh, Whitney, Hammond, Plummer and Pavey © Carrera Commercial Photography

Pavey said we must determine when the public and private sectors should work together to make the most of devolution. She also said we mustn’t just consider current technology when asking what infrastructure changes mean for business; we must ask “what digital technology means for our networks.” Hammond picked up on this at the discussion’s end, stating that in his own view, battery technology will “revolutionise our cities.” Whitney took a different line, arguing that drones will change things more. Driverless cars will also have a big impact, she said. On this final point there was consensus.


Pavey © Carrera Commercial Photography



With the support of Rail Delivery Group, Prospect hosted a panel discussion at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference on how, infrastructure spending in the context of devolution, can help cities develop in a manner that best contributes to a region’s economic objectives. The discussion was chaired by Stephen Hammond MP, Treasury Select Committee and Chair of the Infrastructure APPG (Chair); Cllr Bob Sleigh, Chairman of the West Midlands Combined Authority and Leader of Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council; Paul Plummer, CEO for Rail Delivery Group; and Sarah Whitney, Founding Director of Metro Dynamics; and Jason Pavey, Market Director Local Transport, Atkins.

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