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Talking infrastructure

At the 2018 party conferences, myriad perspectives yielded all sorts of ideas about the future of Britain’s regions. But despite the sheer variety of expertise around the Atkins/Prospect table, a consensus settled around a few solid steps that will be required to kit the country out with the infrastructure it needs

By Prospect Team  

Photos: Atkins

This article was produced in association with Atkins

Autumn 2018 is a singularly urgent moment for debating transport and infrastructure and what these could do for our regions. We remain in the shadow of a Brexit referendum whose result has—rightly or wrongly—been put down to many parts of the country feeling disconnected and “left behind.” Several years of grim productivity data have led to a new focus on pro-active industrial policy and the problem of “bottlenecks,” with overcrowded and inadequate transport ranking foremost among them. We’re now only months away from actually leaving the European Union which could have impacts on trade, ports and conceivably passenger transport, and will ask questions of Britain’s infrastructure. And, after the prime minister’s conference speech promised an easing of austerity, the coming budget—now brought forward to October—is being eagerly looked to as a moment when the low interest rate environment could finally be seized on to unlock some imaginative investments in our economic future.

And there could be few better cities in which to stage this conversation than Liverpool or Birmingham: two great regional capitals, with potential to emerge as real industrial and cultural clusters, as long as they have the transport links, housing and digital connectivity they need to knit them into UK PLC. Both great cities, as well as others such Liverpool’s not-so-distant neighbour Manchester, have new metro-mayors who are keen to seize the opportunities of an emerging devolution settlement. So both cities, which respectively hosted the Labour and Conservative conferences this year, were an ideal venue for Atkins and Prospect to assemble a roomful of expertly interested parties—serving and former ministers, serving and former council leaders, think tankers, social entrepreneurs, academic experts on city governance, lawyers, and a host of other transport and planning managers and practitioners. To encourage a frank exchange, the discussion was under Chatham House rules, where comments are not attributed to any specific individual, but given the diversity of the perspectives involved, more striking than the interesting and expected difference in emphasis were some very practical notes of consensus that emerged.

Everyone, without exception, agreed that overhauling infrastructure was important to unlocking the potential of Britain’s regions and nations, and attempting to rebalance the UK economy as a whole away from an over-reliance on London and the south east. (In the fortnight since we completed these dinners, this thought has been reflected in Prospect’s November issue, which is themed around rebalancing, and a cover feature—“Saving Britain From London”—by the world-renowned economist, Paul Collier).

There were, however, some differences of emphasis on how best to do this. In Liverpool, where the shadow chancellor John McDonnell would set the mood by suggesting that the road to growth began with investment, there was strong support for the government ploughing funds into projects that should give an economic return. In Birmingham, there was more caution—with Conservative voices registering their continued anxiety about the level of the national debt, and so the need to prioritise ruthlessly in deciding which projects should go ahead. There were some predictable differences, too, about which regions should be first in line for extra investment projects. Some who had worked in the provinces highlighted how much extra transport spend per capita London has compared with the rest of the country, whereas other voices who had worked with the authorities in the capital (and indeed some who had worked chiefly outside it) insisted that there should be no need for rationing of investment between the regions. Projects assessed as worthwhile should go ahead without rationing. Further evolution of financial responsibilities in particular, it was suggested, could facilitate this.

While most of the discussants were persuaded of the value of new rail, and new stations in particular as engines of regeneration, one voice was passionately raised in favour of a greater role for coaches, including in time driverless ones. By handing over a dedicated lane of motorways to such vehicles, then adding a new network of busses that could ferry people from the junction of these to every last town and village, it would be possible to vastly expand the number of passenger journeys made.

The Manchester metro

But despite such differences, several powerful lessons emerged about how we need to approach infrastructure and its governance if we want to bequeath to the next generation an economy which rests on firm foundations.

First, with the pace of technological change accelerating, care must be taken to “future proof” every decision, and every assumption—up to and including assumptions about what counts as “infrastructure” these days. Cable, fast-broadband and 5G (which Birmingham is trialling) are no less than the plumbing of the digital economy. It is madness that having these things is not yet a precondition of planning permission. Let’s put this right. And if we’re serious about electric cars, let’s also approach the question of charging points in a joined up, nation-wide way. We can all agree that the true visionaries of infrastructure have thought ahead 100 years or more, but the challenge today is to do that while also ensuring contracts and engineering designs are flexible enough to adapt and survive in the event of technology moving on.

Second, moving from the new to the old, always be sure that you’ve tapped the full potential of pre-existing infrastructure to the max—even if it has been lying dormant for years. We discussed the revival of a Beeching-era railway line in the Scottish Borders, which had been done relatively cheaply, but it was frustrating that more of the value that the project will add to local land and house prices had not been extracted for use in further infrastructure projects. We heard, too, of the creative commercial use station arches were being put to, in a way which should only bolster the economic viability of rail expansion.

Third and finally, don’t allow good infrastructure projects to fall between the cracks of the sometimes baffling mosaic of English local government, or arbitrary accounting rules. Partnerships will always be required, and there are always tricky balances to be struck in terms of engaging with an open mind and bringing the population along, and consulting so exhaustively that nothing ever gets done. The best way through this to set things up so that one agency or authority is in the lead, and clearly accountable for things that get done—but also things that don’t. The desirable financial corollary of such clear political accountability is consolidated funding.

It is an ambitious agenda, but also a timely one. When we met, Theresa May had yet to unveil her new policy to remove the cap on local authorities borrowing to build housing. That she has done so now is a heartening sign that more financial power to build the tomorrow we need is being handed down from Whitehall to other parts of the country. This should embolden all of those—including nearly all the Atkins/Prospect guests—who believe the time is ripe to refurbish the foundations of UK PLC.

Jason Pavey, Market Director at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business said: “We see a number of themes emerging for the future including a focus on long term certainty and simplification of funding streams; planning and development guidance needs to be updated to embrace future technologies while new regulatory frameworks will be required to give transport authorities the powers to manage networks effectively; and finally gaining a greater geographic balance and some consistency of Sub National Transport Bodies (SNTBs) via devolution is key.”

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