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A two-speed England

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2018

Central government needs to change its approach to local transport planning and investment, including by consolidating funding and maximising devolution opportunities, argues Tom Thackray, the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI’s) infrastructure director.

In the past few months, many of us will have relied on our local roads, railways and runways to head off on our summer holidays at home or abroad.

Our region’s transport networks should keep us and our economy moving, driving growth and productivity. But with delays and disruption over the summer, transport has been back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. This weighs heavily not only on our quality of life, but on our region’s economy, of which infrastructure is, quite simply, the lifeblood.

This problem is not unique to whichever region we live and work in. Poor infrastructure is taking a toll on our national performance, and on our national reputation. After decades of underinvestment, the quality of our transport has fallen far behind that of our competitors.

Even though the government is now investing record amounts to catch up – and has committed to developing major projects such as HS2 and the new runway at Heathrow – the World Economic Forum ranks the UK 27th in the world for the quality of our infrastructure. That’s behind Azerbaijan, Estonia and Malaysia, whilst Germany pulls ahead into 12th place, and Japan into 6th.

So what stops us from making faster progress and bringing much-needed investment to infrastructure across the country? For CBI members, it comes down to overly complex decision-making and uncertainty about how to get backing for the most important projects.

At the CBI, we have been working on a new report on how decision-making and delivery can be improved to ensure that every region across England gets the infrastructure it needs to thrive, capitalise on successes, and boost productivity. Following discussions with a wide range of businesses and transport organisations across the country, we have a clear list of actions we want to see the government take to create a policy environment that turns plans into action.

Firstly, firms want more funding for local infrastructure in the government’s upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. That will send a clear signal that the issue is taken seriously, and that local concerns are being heeded in the corridors of central power. And having fewer, more impactful spending pots for local transport investment would change the way decisions are made and lead to spades actually hitting the ground.

Secondly, where it’s central government that holds the purse strings on projects, there must be a clearer link between regional growth and decisions that are taken, with subnational transport bodies for all regions using their local voice to steer the delivery of our priorities.

Thirdly, there must be clarity on the opportunities of devolution and increased local decision-making for all parts of the country. Local leaders and the government should work together to make sure that no region misses out on the opportunities in infrastructure and other areas that will come from devolution.

If we can achieve these things, we can avoid the risk of some regions accelerating ahead of others, and of creating a two-speed England.

At the moment when we focus on being an outward-looking, trading nation, we need world-beating regional infrastructure that unlocks productivity and makes us the envy of our competitors. Business and transport organisations will be the first to work with the government to achieve this.


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