Can regional infrastructure planning provide a new path to growth?

Philip Dyer | 28 Nov 2016 | Comments

It’s widely acknowledged that infrastructure has a starring role to play in a successful Northern Powerhouse. But we have to work hard to ensure that top-down investment does deliver the desired bottom-up growth, as this is not always guaranteed.

Effective planning and delivery should be a key focus if we want to maximise the chances of investments realising their goals. Infrastructure is a means to an end, therefore a clear understanding of the economic demand and outcomes is needed.  Understanding the current infrastructure supply is also important to gain clarity about what needs to be built or refurbished, whether demand can be managed better, or whether the choice of location could reduce the size of investment.  Finally, a consensus needs to be built by analysing the trade-offs and agreeing the most viable funding, financing and delivery model.

These decisions cannot be taken without reference to the wider economic and social context. This is where the challenges arise. For investments at a Northern Powerhouse scale; like the Northern Rail route, 11 separate regional entities (city-regions and combined authorities) must work together. Transport for the North, Network Rail and Highways England already operate at a regional scale and are making progress. But it is slow and resource intensive work that could easily and inadvertently overlook important inter-dependencies and result in solutions that address only part of the broader challenge.

For investments at a city-region scale, to capture the value of a new HS2 station for example, the same complexities apply. Typically 10 councils must work together. Some issues, such as jobs and transport, will be dealt with through the combined authority, but other responsibilities, including housing and planning, are addressed by individual councils. At this scale resource constraints may limit the breadth of discussion and depth of analysis necessary to reach a consensus.

For investments within a city, for example in a development zone, the local spatial strategy will have made progress in defining the opportunity, but will not necessarily have considered the underpinning infrastructure investment in detail. The risk then is that utility companies, highway authorities and transport providers work in silos and the right investment is not provided in the right place or at the right time.

Thinking in a more joined-up way about these issues is one of the benefits that devolution is starting to bring. Transport for the North has issued its pan-northern transport strategy, IPPR North has established a Northern Powerhouse Energy Taskforce and Sheffield City Council has prepared the first Integrated Infrastructure Plan outside London. All demonstrate a desire for joined-up thinking to support city growth, but there remains an opportunity to do more.

Whatever the scale - local, regional or pan-region - organisations need to match their economic and social aspirations with the right level of investment in infrastructure. This includes stress-testing the underlying social, economic, environmental and technical assumptions, understanding the interdependencies, and modelling the complex range of possible investment and delivery options. This will help to build consensus and give assurance to city leaders that they have considered the options and come to a decision that offers value and resilience.

The Northern Powerhouse offers the opportunity to start to address these challenges in new ways.