“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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.