“A blueprint for cities outside London”: The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission on its new cities programme

Works ahead. Image: Getty.

A commissioner, on the National Infrastructure Commission’s regional development programme.​

Last summer the National Infrastructure Commission made transformational investment in cities a central part of the UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Assessment. By 2040 cities across the country – small and large, and not just limited to cities with a metro mayor – will need more help if they are to realise their potential as great places to live and work. This means giving them further powers along with around £43bn of additional local transport funding.

The case for this additional investment and devolution is pretty clear. Cities in every region are growing, but run the risk of experiencing increased congestion in addition to greater pressure on housing. Travelling by car or bus in central Manchester or Bristol can already mean delays of more than 100 seconds per mile, compared to 78 seconds on urban A roads and or 22 seconds on rural A roads. Urban congestion will only get worse without an increased focus on transportation needs within cities.

Our recommendations give the government a blueprint for supporting cities outside London as they develop integrated plans for transport, housing and employment. All of the country’s 45 largest cities require stable, long-term infrastructure budgets, set at the spending review. Then it should be down to elected city leaders to formulate priorities, and city residents are best placed to hold them to account for having a strategic vision and delivering on it. Our proposal replaces the government’s current patchwork of funding sources for cities, which make it difficult for cities to formulate and commit to transformational plans to support growth and well-being.

And there is a need for being more ambitious on funding levels– £43bn of additional investment by 2040 compared to current spending levels. This would mean that devolved budgets in every city would be up 30 per cent over current spending allocations. However, it also means that funding would be available for transformational new projects in the fastest growing and most congested cities across the country in much the same way that London has benefited from additional funding for Crossrail. This would enable metro or bus rapid transit projects in the cities that need them the most.

The city leaders that we have spoken to are excited about the possibilities that more devolution and funding can create, improving the quality of life for people who live in cities as well as increasing productivity, recognising that 60 per cent of jobs are located in cities. We have also found a strong appetite among cities to understand better what makes for a successful local infrastructure strategy. Here, there is value from learning from best practice.

To help with this, we are launching a new partnership scheme with cities – supported by the Centre for Cities and the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – that will help bring cities together to share their experiences and to learn from each other about how to put together and deliver ambitious, effective strategies for transport, homes and jobs.


This will include a series of events where leading experts from city authorities, academia and other fields share what they know about successful transport and planning. These will be hosted in cities across the country and tackle themes such as integrating plans for transport and housing, making the most efficient use of road space, clean city air, and harnessing emerging technologies.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s work plan in this area will include working closely with five different cities from different parts of the country and of different sizes and local governance structures, to help them to develop their long-term transport strategies incorporating the delivery of new homes and job opportunities. The five – West Yorkshire, Liverpool, Derby, Basildon and Exeter – will also serve as case studies to demonstrate the difference that long-term funding certainty and additional powers could make to their areas. As well as receiving advice from the National Infrastructure Commission, they will also have the chance to work with other cities that are already developing long-term strategies to improve infrastructure for their communities.

As our cities have grown, so too have demands on their infrastructure from increasing numbers of people looking to live and work in these vibrant communities. This means breaking with business as usual, looking to give local leaders the tools they need to tackle the issues they face in the cities they know and represent.

We are eagerly awaiting the government’s planned response to all of our recommendations when it formulates a National Infrastructure Strategy next year – an important first for this country. And we are certain that cities are also looking forward to finding innovative ways of working towards delivering a new vision for infrastructure.

Professor Sir Tim Besley is a commissioner with the National Infrastructure Commission, and holds academic posts at Oxford and LSE.

 
 
 
 

What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.