“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’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.