Ed Cox: North must think big to find radical new ideas

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THIS week, the RSA’s influential City Growth Commission – which looks at what is needed to enable our cities to thrive – claimed that the UK has “chronically underinvested in infrastructure, trailing that of other leading global economies”.

It estimated that the impact of this failure has been an average of five per cent lower growth each year between 2000 and 2010. This is no surprise.

Infrastructure investment in the UK has lagged behind other OECD countries ever since 1970. The World Economic Forum recently ranked the UK 24th in the world for the quality of its infrastructure, some way behind near neighbours France and Germany.

These are national averages. With London way out ahead on transport, digital and air infrastructure, one wonders where on earth Yorkshire or the North of England might be ranked were they nations in their own right.

And there’s little sign of this changing any time soon. IPPR North’s latest analysis shows that where public funding is involved wholly or in part, we are planning to spend £5,035 per person on future infrastructure projects in London compared to just £547 per person in Yorkshire – little more than five per cent of the total. Of the different projects in the pipeline, where nearly 80 per cent of those in London are already on site, in Yorkshire fewer than half are under way.

But behind the statistics there are the realities: the scrummage to get on a train from Huddersfield to Leeds, the stuttering journey across the Pennines, whole swathes of countryside with little or no access to broadband, distribution networks requiring empty lorries to ply their way up and down our motorways, leaky water systems and inefficient energy supplies.

If it sometimes seems as though we have the infrastructure you might expect in a less developed nation – in the North, we do.

So what needs to be done? For a start there’s no point simply complaining. Investment patterns have barely shifted in decades. If we are going to see a significant change in either national investment or its regional distribution then a case must be made for a radical shift in thinking.

First, the case must be made for infrastructure investment which is truly transformational. Small-scale schemes are vitally important to oil the wheels of the local economy, but they only go so far.

Transformational infrastructure can be defined as having an observable impact on the economic performance of a region.To do so requires projects of significant size and scale, they must change the costs of doing business and even bring about wider social and environmental benefits.

There are few such schemes in the national pipeline. HS2 would clearly be one, Crossrail and Crossrail 2 proposals will arguably cause a step change in London, but more in easing congestion than driving productivity growth.

Once again this is unsurprising. When it comes to transport, our methods for appraising new projects pay scant attention to the wider economic benefits that might accrue from large-scale investment. Instead, they prefer the kinds of scheme where there is a clear and measurable immediate benefit to transport users – great for easing congestion but not so good for generating an observable economic impact.

Second, we need some big ideas. The Chancellor’s vision for a “powerhouse” of northern cities, connected by an HS3 trainline, is one such example. His critics quite rightly ask for the details, but unless we start dreaming of the kind of infrastructure the future will need, we are unlikely ever to achieve it. That’s why IPPR North has today launched a competition to seek out the best big infrastructure ideas for the next 30 years.

The Great North Plan competition is looking for northern infrastructure ideas that will define the next generation: a solar-powered Sheffield, a wireless Wakefield, a monorail linking Liverpool and Leeds. The North needs ideas with the vision and ambition to match Boris Island or plans for London’s underground motorway system. We aim to expose the kind of ideas that once defined the great cities of the North.

Which brings us to the third ingredient for radical change: a major decentralisation of strategic planning and investment powers to our big city regions.

With the advent of combined authorities in all the northern city regions, we have authorities at the right economic scale to make sensible strategic plans for key infrastructure investments. They now need the tools and the freedom to act.

The Chancellor has offered them similar powers to those held in London, subject perhaps to the adoption of a metro mayor. On the Labour side, Lord Adonis has proposed £30bn fund to scale-up the ambitions and activities of England’s core cities. Each will have to be held to his word, but the time is ripe for ambition and ideas.

Further details on The Great North Plan competition can be found at www.GreatNorthPlan.com/professional.