"Build, build, build; Project Speed ; shovel ready." As government announcements suggest, there’s a good deal of excitement involved in planning infrastructure. After all, it provides a welcome slew of jobs in the short term and improved transport links for the population further out. But, in the context of rebalancing the UK in a post COVID-19 world, refocusing our planning through a place-based lens would make a valuable difference.
A key function of transport infrastructure is to boost the productivity of an area; to connect the talent pool with jobs and opportunity. Given commuting patterns are likely to be changed long term as a consequence of lockdown, it is a difficult but opportune time to reshape commuter transport to lower its carbon footprint and the focus of this blog to help deliver on levelling up.
To best achieve this, transport planning needs to be considered in the wider context of place; where do people live and where will more people live in the coming decades, where will the jobs of the future be and how will these locations relate to one another as well as to other key community destinations such as schools, cultural assets and shops?
While regional planning factors this into City Region and Local Authority strategies, greater place based focus within the national approach to transport infrastructure planning and funding would better stimulate connectivity across the UK’s regional economy, supporting the levelling up agenda.
Planning commuting infrastructure changes as part of whole programmes of investment, rather than individual projects, is one of ten recommendations on delivering commuting infrastructure in the CBI and KPMG Connecting Communities report.
It highlights that the Government’s current project-by-project approach to transport infrastructure limits our ability to maximise value for money and drive transformational change across the country.
Following the impacts of COVID-19 on the country, with tighter purse strings and changed labour markets, we cannot afford to continue in this way, especially as it hampers rebalancing efforts, with levelling up difficult to address at an individual project level.
Isolated transport funding decisions tend to strengthen the status quo rather than rebalancing. This can result in areas that stand to benefit most from investment being negatively impacted – simply because places that might need more than one type of funding don’t offer sufficient return on investment when viewed through the lens of just one project at a time. So rather than getting the multiple support needed, they risk receiving none.
It’s therefore not a surprise that a government review of the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline in 2017 found that the lowest levels of planned public investment in projects were in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber and the South West – areas of the country that struggle with the poorest connectivity.
Considering the interactions between projects when assessing an investment case gives a clearer view of returns as they that result in the impact of a programme being more than the sum of its parts. A regeneration programme consisting of transport, housing and place-making investments, needs each strand to be viewed in tandem to understand the value for money that will be delivered. Another example is the employment opportunity and productivity gains of transport investment that widens or deepens labour markets by making commuting more convenient and/or less expensive. A significant proportion of these gains can depend on housing and other development responses to such connectivity improvements.
These interdependencies need to be captured and maximised to avoid an isolated transport investment looking too risky given other investment and planning decisions yet to be made, often by other decision makers, using separate decision criteria and facing different budget constraints. An integrated programme would see all the commitments necessary to unlock the wider benefits forming part of the same process. This would go some way to responding to the breadth of the rebalancing challenge, recognising that it requires a holistic place based perspective.
Embedding this change to how infrastructure planning is evaluated into the upcoming Green Book review would be a welcome and practical demonstration of the Government’s commitment to levelling up as it assesses its transport priorities for the new landscape of work and commuting.