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Cities are complex bodies which rely on their connections to work, and so making the right decisions about infrastructure is essential in helping them to grow and thrive. Such connections take many forms, from the traditional to the modern. Roads are as necessary as power networks, and rail as important as broadband and telecoms. The more ways we have of connecting at a distance, the larger our cities become and the more we need to meet face to face.
But there’s no quick fix when it comes to infrastructure. Major projects take time to implement and to plan, even if planning restrictions are not a constraint. In a crowded location, even adding power cables is not straightforward, and new underground lines are obviously still harder to implement. Crossrail – now known as the Elizabeth line – will have taken almost 8 years to construct, and almost as long to get the engineering right.
Forward planning in infrastructure has not been our strong point in London. The need for additional cross city links was recognised in the 1980s but was only acted upon when that need became absolutely imperative. Even now, there is too little recognition of the importance of spare capacity in helping the capital adapt and grow.
Forward planning is of course a fraught exercise. None of us knows what the future will actually hold or the extent to which it might be like the past. Both London’s population and employment have been growing faster than expected, and neither fell during the recent recession.
Of course, past growth is no guarantee that the future will be equally rosy. However, London has shown in the past its ability to reinvent itself as structural change has emerged. During the 1970s and 80s it lost over a million manufacturing jobs, but has replaced them with more than a million jobs in largely professional services. In doing so, the economic geography switched from jobs around the inner ring roads to jobs in the centre. Fortunately, the infrastructure was sufficiently flexible and robust to allow this change.
In more recent years a further switch has occurred with the emergence of strong creative and technology sectors. This has changed the geography of London yet again, with more firms and jobs moving to the east of the city, in response both to the opportunities offered by these areas, and emerging infrastructure investments such as around Kings Cross/St Pancras and Stratford. Without such infrastructure and the spare capacity that was available, it would have been much harder to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
The current mayoralty has made progress by creating a London Infrastructure Plan which looks forward to 2050. It features a number of scenarios for both population and employment growth, which include optimistic variants. This planning for growth is to be applauded, even if its sources are not well identified.
But as time goes on, this plan needs to be updated – which will pose a big challenge to whoever becomes the next mayor. It also needs to be extended, in two directions. First, there is the need to think about spare capacity. Resilience, and the ability to flex in the face of change, requires more than just the right amount of infrastructure for today’s needs. One reason that London managed to cope with the loss of manufacturing jobs is that there was enough infrastructure of all kinds to make the change to services jobs possible – even if only just.
To develop resilience requires taking a bet. When Joseph Bazalgette built London’s sewers with more than twice the necessary capacity at that time, he could not have known how much that additional capacity would be needed, yet they have been a major asset in London’s development. The next mayor will have to think hard about how to make such bets in future.
Second, plans need to include financial payback thinking. Who should pay what, in order to pay back the money borrowed to fund infrastructure projects? Sometimes charges will cover these costs, but major projects can take longer than the normal time-frames businesses think about.
Sometimes the benefits may be so widespread that only the taxpayer can pick up the cost, and payback reflects the consequences for a general growth rate. Sometimes, we may decide that the welfare of citizens is a sufficient benefit. Balancing these considerations is not done clearly or well enough at present – the next Mayor will have to do better.
Bridget Rosewell is Senior Adviser at Volterra Partners, and is a commissioner for the independent National Infrastructure Commission
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