With growing calls for the UK to reverse an historic trend of chronic under investment in infrastructure, IPPR North’s Ed Cox believes it’s time to seek out the best and the brightest big ideas.
The UK has “chronically underinvested in infrastructure, trailing that of other leading global economies.” That was the damning verdict of the RSA’s City Growth Commission, which reported earlier this week.
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 has recently ranked the UK 24th in the world for the quality of its infrastructure, some way behind near neighbours France (5th) and Germany (9th).
Effective infrastructure is a key ingredient for an effective and efficient economy. Train and tram lines, roads, bridges, bus stations, flood defences, wind farms, solar panel and super high-speed broadband networks are all vital in driving regional growth.
The Commission makes a number of recommendations, many echoing IPPR North’s work in this arena. First and foremost, it argues that cities need the freedom to operate as ‘whole systems’. At the moment the powers to build infrastructure and to drive economic growth more generally rely upon central government pulling the strings.
When it comes to delivering big projects this can cause unnecessary cost and delay. The report argues that ‘decision-making and finance for infrastructure need to be administered in the round at city-level’.
But this is true beyond each individual city. The need to see the Northern cities as something of a ‘metro-region’ as they would be in Germany or the US is vital. Jim O’Neill, the City Growth Commission chairman, has previously argued for a “Manpool” super-city. But this requires world-class interconnections when in fact it takes nearly as long to get from Liverpool to Leeds as it does to get down to London.
Unusually for a think-tank report, the City Growth Commission also calls for vision. A few weeks ago, the Chancellor’s vision for a “Powerhouse” of northern cities, connected by an HS3 trainline, was derided by many who quite rightly asked for the details – and these must follow.
But unless we start dreaming of the kind of infrastructure the future will need, we are unlikely ever to achieve it. It’s widely recognised that the North loses out as spending on infrastructure is skewed towards London and the South. However, there’s no point simply complaining about investment patterns. If the North is to receive its share of the money, then it must come up with big, innovative project ideas that are worth investing in.
That’s why IPPR North has today launched a competition to seek out the best and the brightest 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. Many ideas might be a bit wild, but given further thought and support, may hold real merit and provide infrastructure solutions for the future. Through an expert judging panel, we aim to expose the kind of ideas that once defined the great cities of the North.
- The Great North Plan competition details can be found on www.GreatNorthPlan.com