“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 actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.