National Infrastructure Commission: Devolving regional infrastructure will pave the way for economic growth

Published by Bridget Rosewell CBE on December 30th 2022, 9:09am

Whichever way it is branded, the challenge of boosting economic growth across the country will largely be determined by the capacity of major cities beyond London to thrive. At their bustling best, they are economic magnets, drawing in businesses that create the jobs and investment which improve outcomes and quality of life in the regional economies they support.

Skills and education remain fundamental to unlocking economic growth. But good quality infrastructure has its part to play. Better digital connectivity gives people more options for how and where they work. Expanding low-carbon heating and facilitating the switch to electric vehicles will make cities more sustainable places to live and work.

But local transport is where the big opportunities exist for infrastructure to support levelling up. This can only be planned and managed locally. Whitehall can’t make the right connections. Getting people where they want to go, whenever they want to, is easier said than done right now. That’s why the National Infrastructure Commission has improving urban and inter-urban transport as one of three strategic priorities for our second National Infrastructure Assessment in 2023.

Existing assumptions about transport planning have been challenged by the growth of home and hybrid working; and many cities are dealing with both lower public transport passenger levels and rising congestion. Is this a permanent change? We don’t know. But it’s certainly a challenge for political leaders and others seeking to plan transport investments to support growth.

Should they ‘wait and see’, or plough on regardless with existing plans? We think neither.

In our recent report ‘Getting cities moving’, we maintain that generating more trips in and around cities is a singular social and economic good, crucial to generating the growth that levelling up requires. But local leaders must do so without adding to congestion problems or undermining efforts to decarbonise local economies (the transport sector will find meeting the interim 2035 targets in the sixth carbon budget tough).

Successfully squaring this circle will need a combination of ‘pull’ and ‘push’ measures. The former means a renewed focus on shifting people out of cars and into public transport. This will involve redoubling efforts to improve the attractiveness of public transport, partly by prioritising other measures of success beyond simple efficiency and speed. This in turn entices a broader range of potential travellers- beyond just commuters - back into our city centres. With limited room for manoeuvre due to congestion and net-zero obligations, active travel too will become more important.

But what of the push? Cities will have to consider demand management measures, such as congestion charging or rethinking road space allocation, to avoid the car emerging as an unwitting ‘winner’ as local economies recover. But in doing so, cities must make sure they don’t inadvertently reduce numbers of trips by pricing out those on low incomes or introducing a charging scheme that’s out of sync with a changing commuting profile.

Choosing the investments needed, against the current background, won’t be easy. But by ensuring plans for strategic transport enhancements are robust and adaptable to a range of demand scenarios, city leaders can help maximise infrastructure’s capacity to boost levelling up.

While the solutions will be local, central government must play its part, and February’s Levelling Up White Paper showed significant ambition. But that must now be matched by fundamental reform of local transport funding allocation, with a shift from councils bidding against each other for short-term funding pots, to long-term devolved funding deals.

These new devolved arrangements need to be in place soon if the government’s objectives are to be achieved by 2030.

While local plans need to work against a backdrop of ‘known unknowns’, councils would be well served if central government did all it can to reduce the same category of factors when it comes to national policy.

Key Points:

• Reliable, efficient local transport has a key role in regeneration.

• Greater devolution to support tailored infrastructure plans, and simplified local transport funding, are both important for stimulating economic growth.

• Government’s 2030 ambitions require an equally ambitious implementation programme.

This article originally appeared in The Leaders Council’s special report on ‘The Levelling Up agenda’, published on November 30, 2022. Read the full special report here.

Photo by Elissar Haidar on Unsplash

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Authored By

Bridget Rosewell CBE
Commissioner at the National Infrastructure Commission
December 30th 2022, 9:09am

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