The road more taken: delivering future connectivity and mobility

Source: PSE April/May 2019

Localis chief executive Jonathan Werran outlines the challenges to delivering future connectivity and mobility, and asks what policy shifts to how we fund and plan for modern transport infrastructure will be required if we are to stay on track.

Connectivity through physical and digital infrastructure can lead the way forward in reducing social exclusion and improving social mobility.

On a physical scale, the way that people are moving and travelling across the UK is changing. Car ownership is decreasing and car-sharing increasing. We are witnessing a change in ‘car culture’ – a change sparked by the rising costs associated with car ownership and rapid urbanisation combined with improved public transport. The change is also being powered through the adoption of technologies which have reduced the need for physical connection and increased online connections.

However, improvements to physical transport connections are unlikely to assist those from a poorer socio-economic background or those who are socially excluded in securing employment opportunities. Instead, digital connectivity is equally a much-needed infrastructure.

With the marked shift towards electrical cars and vehicles, digital and energy connectivity must be provided to improve electric accessibility – for instance, through providing more electric charging points. Otherwise, as Localis’ recent report ‘Smart cities – fair investment for sustainable growth’ showed, we will have a tale of two cities with investment priorities for more prosperous parts of the country to the exclusion of areas of ‘market failure’.

Digital connectivity is also important for reducing exclusion for people who live in areas which lack in public transport and connectivity. Digital has the potential to change the way that society operates. Work applicants from areas with poor transport infrastructure could, for example, use online video connections for job interviews.

It is also important to consider the idea that people may not lack transport options due to being unable to afford car ownership. Instead they are actually ‘transport poor’ – a circumstance largely occurring in rural areas, where relatively affluent pensioners rely on public transport – but are not necessarily living in poverty.

In order to ensure a coherent transport strategy that does not just improve economic growth but also improves social mobility, the role of regional transport bodies will be essential in delivering a joined-up, consistent approach to transport organisation and management across local authorities.

This regional approach to transport management is already evident in the creation of the likes of Transport for the North and Midlands Connect. However, the involvement of local authorities in these regional bodies is essential to ensure that infrastructure supports new developments that respect different local needs and identities.

In short, as a country we need more flexible and future-thinking transport to improve connectivity and, therefore, improve social mobility and economic prosperity for all areas across of the UK, regardless of geographical location.

The release of the government’s proposals for the creation of a Major Road Network in December 2017 opens up new opportunities to understand how improving transport investment and infrastructure can match and keep pace with increasing urbanisation and the move towards smart cities.

The ultimate question we have to ask is: does an increase in physical and digital connectivity have the potential to markedly reduce social exclusion? Would this increase in connectivity help improve social mobility in terms of improving physical and economic inclusion?

From a vantage point of social inclusion, the need to better connect our more remote communities, particularly those on the coast, is clear. England’s coastal areas lag behind the inner core on many social and economic indicators. We need to understand the extent to which the need for better physical infrastructure dovetails with need for better digital infrastructure in reducing social exclusion.

We must also tackle the state of future readiness. The question of how prepared the road system is for a rise in Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) and the shift to more environmentally-friendly transport systems poses further questions. How, for example, would a CAV road system differ from the modern system in policy terms, and at what level of CAV take-up would manually-operated cars become a drag on efficiency and productivity?

And then comes the question of modern governance: with the various strategic questions pressing to the fore, how do we ensure a well thought-out and interconnected approach to transport governance at the sub-regional level? With fuel and ownership models changing, what will be the best way to tax road transport? What is the right balance of democracy and technocracy in managing the road network?

While Localis hopes to answer these questions later in the year, the Spending Review represents a more immediate opportunity to reset the dial for much-needed investment in transport and infrastructure. For our money, Localis feels ministers must use the forthcoming Spending Review to tie funding for vital public infrastructure to the clean air agenda. Our recent report on this subject, ‘A Modern Transport Infrastructure Strategy’, restated the obvious, which is that the role of central government remains essential to making local schemes viable. Roads will go unrepaired and vital new structures left unbuilt unless cleaner air is enshrined as a main objective of future infrastructure spending decisions.

On a pan-government basis, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should pool and align their combined policy capacities in areas such as electric and low-emission vehicles. These future transport investment decisions should be geared around providing money and assistance to areas of the country doubly-affected by industrial air pollution and low economic growth. 

Such national level coordination would secure investment and support those parts of the country, such as Hull and Stoke-on-Trent, which experience air pollution but lack the resources to respond to the clean air agenda.

In turn, and at local level, strategic authorities – such as combined authorities or county councils – should take greater responsibility for delivering clean growth. There are a few main ways in which they could accomplish this: by attracting greater long-term private capital investment, or by exploring asset recycling schemes with major institutions such as pension funds to unlock fresh capital funding for infrastructure investment.

Local areas should explore pool-funding with neighbouring strategic authorities and also make better use of their local tax-setting powers – including business rates, council tax, as well as new levies such as payroll and tourism taxes – to generate revenue-funding infrastructure. And, the public sector should do more in harnessing their procurement and policy levers more actively to promote the agenda for clean air infrastructure.

Furthermore, our strategic authorities support a more transformative role for new technologies, especially in harnessing the potential of public and private sector data to optimise existing infrastructure use. Big Data could help localities better plan future transport schemes, making them more effective, evidence-focused interventions that are regionally responsive and support liveability in local areas.

In short, both public and private investment in the repair and renewal of vital local infrastructure will be crucial for our national prosperity and liveability. To break the current logjam, a positive case must be made for creative as well as sustainable approaches to financing the common physical assets upon which both our own and future generations will rely upon to connect people to places.

Local leaders must take a punt on clean growth using all means at their disposal – fiscal, economic and regulatory – to deliver world-class infrastructure to their areas. But without the allocation of sufficient central government resources and the coherent connection of disparate Whitehall policy strands, we risk leaving left-behind areas further behind.


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