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National Infrastructure Commission: Progressing the North

Source: PSE Feb/March 2019

The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) National Infrastructure Assessment was released in July 2018, making a variety of recommendations ranging from digital technology growth to making the switch to low-carbon energy sources. Professor Sadie Morgan, commissioner at the NIC, delves deeper into how northern cities can be improved for generations to come.

It’s no wonder that the heritage of the north of England is recognised the world over. Few places can rival the mark the north has made on the arts, design, and culture – and that’s before we even consider its place as the cradle of industry.

From Channel 4 setting up its new headquarters in Leeds to companies like Microsoft and Google opening offices in Manchester, there’s a renewed buzz in the north. However, like most of the country, its cities are suffering from congestion, with transport networks under strain, declining air quality, and greater pressure put on local housing markets.

That’s why in our High-Speed North report we highlighted the strong case for an integrated road and rail strategy, including Northern Powerhouse Rail. While this would be transformational for improving connectivity between cities, it should be complemented by further investment to ensure passengers can travel seamlessly within cities too. 

More recently, the Commission published its inaugural National Infrastructure Assessment, setting out how the UK’s infrastructure needs can be met across a 30-year time horizon.

One of our key recommendations is that by 2040, cities outside London should receive £43bn of extra funding, coupled with further powers. Cities need stable long-term infrastructure budgets. However, forced to grapple with a patchwork of different funding sources, leaders lack the certainty they need to look further into the future, stymying the possibility of more ambitious schemes. The measures we’re proposing would give leaders in the north the tools they need to develop integrated strategies for transport, housing, and employment.

To demonstrate how this could make a real impact, we’ve launched our cities programme, which will include events across the country to help councils share knowledge and expertise. We’re also working more closely to help five “case study” areas devise long-term plans, including the Liverpool City Region and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority. We will be offering bespoke advice about how these places can address the unique transport difficulties they face locally and how investment can be used to unlock much-needed homes.

This isn’t a challenge that’s confined to the north, or even our case study cities – we see it in every corner of the country. Indeed, one example is the Arc spanning Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford. This is hardly somewhere thought of as struggling – not least because it’s home to some of the UK’s most productive and fast-growing cities. But it’s an area that, with world-beating universities and cutting-edge tech industries, is in high demand and, as such, suffers from an overburdened infrastructure network and a lack of affordable homes.

The detailed recommendations we made may be specific to that area – but there is still a common thread that could apply elsewhere: that new transport projects should not be planned in isolation and must be used to maximum possible effect to deliver housing and new communities, for existing residents and those who come later.

Looking to the future, the government is due to formally respond to our assessment later in the year through its National Infrastructure Strategy. This will mark a critical moment for our northern cities.

Devolution is proving to be a success, with four metro mayors in the north of England overseeing visionary plans to upgrade their cities’ transport connections. It’s clear that local representatives know their communities better than anyone, so we want cities across the north – both large and small – to benefit in the same way. I hope now that ministers will implement our recommendations and empower local leaders to be the architects of their own destinies.


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