A local approach to infrastructure planning could generate greater efficiencies and exploit synergies argues Richard Dawson, chair of earth systems, Newcastle University
The time has come for national government to devolve fiscal powers and give greater responsibility to local authorities and communities. This will unlock opportunities for growth and to deliver the infrastructure their communities need.
Over the last five years, successive National Infrastructure Plans have helped reignite political interest in infrastructure. This is extremely welcome, but as research reported by the iBUILD Infrastructure Research Centre, a collaboration between Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham Universities, demonstrates, this must not be to the detriment of our local and urban infrastructure. Balancing growth across different geographical scales – from the local to the city and city-region – is vital to the success of the national economy. It is at these scales where infrastructure services are most concentrated and where most people benefit from infrastructure services in their everyday lives.
Local actors are often motivated to achieve goals other than generate profit, focusing on the creation of local jobs, and increased individual and community health and wellbeing through affordable warmth and better air quality. Indeed, a review of the £787bn Obama stimulus plan, undertaken by Smart Growth America, revealed that local infrastructure projects created more jobs, more quickly, than federal projects.
Closer to home, villages in Lancashire were so frustrated by the market’s failure to provide high quality communications infrastructure they set up their own community organisation Broadband for the Rural North (www.b4rn.org.uk), dug trenches, and laid a gigabit fibre optic broadband network themselves.
Current governance and regulatory frameworks typically foster investment on a sector or project specific basis, delivering un-integrated solutions that are driven by objectives frequently in conflict with the priorities of the local communities they are intended to serve.
Recent City Deal arrangements in England and Scotland have scratched the surface of devolution of infrastructure powers, but they see central government maintain strict fiscal control over their operation and there have been highly uneven outcomes in allocation of finances and powers to city-regions. At one extreme, over a million people in the Black Country received around £3M in immediate cash commitments from Whitehall, while the 1.75M people living in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley will benefit from a total of £1bn of direct grant funding from the UK and Scottish governments. Similarly, London, Newcastle, Manchester, Scotland and Wales have varied devolved powers for delivering transport infrastructure. While City Deals are an important development, when viewed in an international context they do not represent radical decentralisation.
A more comprehensive and systemic approach to devolving powers for infrastructure planning, regulation and delivery is required. This must provide local authorities and communities with the ability to raise and retain local revenue to reinvest in local infrastructure; establish innovative local delivery organisations that can exploit efficiencies and synergies between different infrastructure services and support the use of alternative investment approaches such as revolving funds, tax increment financing, municipal and social impact bonds, and crowd-sourced funding. In return, cities and local areas should play a more prominent role within national infrastructure planning than they do currently.
‘Are you being served?’, The mid-term review and manifesto of the EPSRC & ESRC funded iBUILD project, was launched in Westminster on 26th March 2015. The full report can be downloaded from www.ibuild.ac.uk