Turning infrastructure investment into economic growth cannot be left to chance

I read Lord Deighton’s HS2 Task Force report last week with a growing sense of optimism over the way that we are at last starting to shift the way that we view investment in transport infrastructure. 

Gone – or at least gradually going – is the notion that we invest simply to facilitate movement of people and goods. Now we are starting to grasp the notion that the really big wins come from the development and regeneration that happens as a result. 

That we have for so long failed to understand and appreciate this fact is perhaps not surprising to anyone that heard transport planning veteran Jim Steer’s Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport presidential lecture this week.

His reflections on the history of transport planning pointed out that all too often the success seen from investments – such as that witnessed at Canary Wharf in London’s once-derelict docklands as a result of investment to extend the Jubilee Line – were despite, rather because of any formal transport plan. 

In fact, Steer pointed out, the reality is generally quite the opposite.

“It is easier to point to a string of transport failures that had the unintended consequence of creating a planning success,” he said. “Some of the most successful urban developments have arisen precisely because of the failure of major transport plans” 

So while Deighton certainly makes all the right noises in his report about establishing vital local growth strategies, working with local authorities to embed the project into local plans and Local Enterprise Partnership strategies, we must also bear in mind the reality of the past.

We must learn from the fact that our track record in the transport and economic planning arena is not great. For Deighton’s excellent plans to bear fruit, steps must be taken to avoid leaving it to chance that the intended - rather than the unintended - consequences will flow.

Unsurprisingly Steer has a solution. What is missing, he said, is a national spatial strategy to help shape development and to guide investment in the transport which will ultimately drive growth. 

And he is spot on. If we are to invest in and properly utilise our rail, road and airport networks to both drive economic growth and cope with the extraordinary surge in population expected over the coming decades, we really cannot leave it to chance. 

Yet as Steer pointed out, despite now having five year financial planning across the regulated air and rail sectors and very soon across the road network, without an overarching national plan the risk is that a silo approach to planning results, with each mode acting independently – and usually to the detriment – of each other. 

Instead we need a plan that focuses less on individual transport modes and more on economic and social outcomes. A plan that sets out how and where the new cities will be built, understands the benefits of agglomeration as people and businesses cluster together and sets in train a long term vision for the nation. 

It is not an easy challenge. But as Steer puts it, with “openness, collaboration, well-informed decision making, unrestricted by inappropriately fixed analytical assumptions” it will be a challenge to relish. 

Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence

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