The National Infrastructure Commission chief executive, Phil Graham, signals a welcome focus on urban transport
It is a fact of life that the debate about big infrastructure projects in the UK is often focused on major inter-city connections that make it easier for people to travel between major conurbations. Projects such as High Speed 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail regularly hit the headlines – usually with much celebration of their purported productivity impacts.
But in his speech last week to the UK Infrastructure Show in Birmingham, NIC chief executive Phil Graham pointed to intra-city transport as an area of major underinvestment for cities outside of London. Drawing a contrast with the “genuine devolution and long-term funding” of London’s transport system, Graham highlighted the “fragmented and piecemeal system of funding” that other cities are subjected to as a key obstacle in the way of achieving their economic potential.
The Centre for Cities endorses his call for a three-part approach to redressing this skew towards inter-city and international transport infrastructure. It consists of proper funding devolution with long-term settlements, a significant increase in capital funding for infrastructure in cities, and new powers and duties for city authorities to make the most of this funding.
These reforms must come as a package, with any one alone not sufficient to achieve the infrastructure that cities need. Provided these powers and funds are devolved to genuine economic areas, then Graham is right in suggesting that cities of all sizes should have the opportunity to benefit.
Our support for this course of action is based on our previous work on this topic. Our research into the Northern Powerhouse, based on comparisons with European urban agglomerations, highlighted that commuting overwhelmingly occurs within city regions, rather than between them, and indicated that poor city economic performance is more likely to be caused by weak intra-city connectivity than weak inter-city connectivity. Our earlier work on making transport work for cities outlined a plan for improving urban transport, including devolution of regulatory powers, long-term capital settlements for cities, devolution of fundraising powers, integrated management of urban transport networks, and targeting transport interventions where they will support economic growth.
Pushing for a greater focus on intra-urban journeys for infrastructure is not about defunding committed inter-city schemes, or suggesting that inter-city journeys do not matter. Improving inter-city connectivity is popular, and indeed, helps workers moving to agglomeration economies to remain connected to their friends and families. But the problem is that, for too long, intra-city improvements outside of London have not been prioritised in national infrastructure planning. And ultimately, it is in intra-urban contexts where transport can make a real difference to productivity. In eroding the barriers between workers and jobs in agglomeration economies, intra-city infrastructure improvements can help to ensure that workers are matched to jobs as efficiently as possible, and in doing so, drive productivity growth.
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