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Bigger than local

Source: Public Sector Executive Dec/Jan 2015

There is a need for a bigger-than-local approach when it comes to UK growth and development, particularly when it comes to infrastructure, writes Amanda Clack, senior vice president at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

The devolution of powers to UK cities certainly isn’t a new notion. However, it has come into sharp focus once again with the launch of the Cities Growth Commission’s report, entitled ‘Unleashing Metro Growth’ (see box out). The rationale behind this report is clear. By giving local authorities and their stakeholders more power, they will be better placed to respond dynamically to the needs and opportunities of their own economies. It is also hoped that this approach will promote the re-balancing of the wider UK economy and help to boost its fortunes in the long term.

This idea is one that even the government is starting to acknowledge – an example of which can be seen a few months back when George Osborne shared in the vision of the One North report, which sets out recommendations for the linking of northern cities to create what he termed a ‘northern powerhouse’.

A strategic planning level

However, in order to realise this vision, we need decisive measures in place which give local authorities and their stakeholders the power they need to make a real and lasting difference. What’s more, we need to ensure that the UK’s housing, planning and infrastructure are made relevant to the specific needs of local markets. There is a fundamental need for a strategic planning level, which encompasses whole regions as a means to delivering growth and the associated benefits for local communities – one that is bigger than local, but smaller than national.

UK infrastructure, as well as being essential in connecting cities and regions, is one sector that could significantly benefit from the ‘bigger than local’ approach. At present we have a centralised infrastructure plan that dictates which infrastructure projects will commence based on their position in a queue. However, via a more devolved method of infrastructure prioritisation, the real benefits can truly be unlocked – resulting in the creation of local jobs, social change, and support for local businesses, as well as the creation of a more globally-competitive nation.

Seeing an investment in infrastructure as one in economic competitiveness, RICS has been prescient in developing its own road map for the delivery of visions such as those set out by Cities Growth Commission and George Osborne. Drawing on the expertise and insight of its members, RICS has developed a set of key policy objectives that it hopes will help to shape how decisions are made on the allocation and planning of infrastructure projects.

Economic potential

Firstly, the RICS ‘Property in Politics’ paper calls for a National Infrastructure Delivery Plan to be developed. We believe that projects should be given the go-ahead based on their economic potential, not merely because they appear next in the infrastructure investment pipeline. Moreover, the infrastructure pipeline at a national level needs to link to regional hubs capable of initiating and delivering projects. Local authorities would be key in providing the intelligence needed to calculate the positive impacts that major infrastructure projects could bring to their area – particularly when looking at the opportunities on offer for employment, local businesses and the wider community. 

The second of the RICS recommendations looks at the potential for ‘Olympic-style’ infrastructure delivery partners to be created to deliver regional projects. To do this, RICS calls for the creation of simplified private and public sector partnerships, which will enable the delivery of major projects through special purpose-built vehicles such as Crossrail – these being publically accountable, but placing the build, operation and maintenance into the private sector.

Local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) should be empowered to set up these public and private delivery partnerships across a range of schemes in order to deliver projects more effectively. Publicly accountable and jointly funded, which will remove deterrent risks, these delivery partners would focus on delivering integrated projects on time and on budget.  Through its ‘Property in Politics’ paper, RICS has not only set out its vision for a more devolved approach to infrastructure planning and delivery, it has also set out a road map for how this vision can be turned into a reality.

‘Bigger than local’ is not just a soundbite, it’s an approach that should be applied to the delivery and planning of a whole host of other sectors including construction, planning and development and housing.

Main recommendations of the ‘Unleashing Metro Growth’ report

  • Significant shift from the centre to metros in the design, delivery and decision-making of policy and finance, enabling more co-ordinated and responsive decisions, and cross-region working
  • Significant shift in fiscal powers from the centre to metros, with multi-year financial settlements, retaining more of the tax proceeds of growth, less ringfencing, more flexibility on borrowing, and (for the most devolved metro areas) the freedom to set and retain a suite of taxes, starting with business rates and council tax, offsetting these revenues in a net neutral grant settlement with HM Treasury
  • Metro representation in national decision-making, with representation (a seat or attendance) at Cabinet and/or sub-committees, both political and officer side
  • Redirecting welfare spending to ‘more preventative and productive outcomes’ and improvements to investment appraisal, digital connectivity, transport infrastructure and smart ticketing, long-term infrastructure plans for other metro regions to mirror London’s 2050 vision
  • Metros should take on planning authority powers, aggregating up decision making (eg to combined authorities) to complement strategic investment across the city-region
  • Metro areas should be able to reclassify poor quality Green Belt and promote Green Belt swaps to deal with the housing shortage
  • Metros could administer adult skills budgets and consider a ‘metro minimum wage’
  • Government should lift the cap on tier 2 skilled migration and license metros to become sponsors on behalf of SMEs
  • Implementing the higher education recommendations from the Cities Growth Commission’s earlier ‘UniverCities’ report

RICS recommendations from ‘Property in Politics’

  • Implement development delivery units and housing zones
  • Issue property tax forward guidance within its first 100 days
  • Deliver a professional private rented sector
  • Introduce ‘amberfield’: a new planning class
  • Embed local plan enforcement
  • Lead a resource revolution in planning
  • Create a national procurement framework
  • Introduce a construction skills investment charter
  • Implement a construction finance hub
  • Produce a national infrastructure delivery plan
  • Promote ‘Olympic–style’ infrastructure delivery partners
  • Set up an infrastructure commission

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


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