Government must target transport investment to beat congestion, boost growth and ‘level up’

Congestion is holding back major cities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, where new transport infrastructure could help them add billions to the UK economy each year

Press release published on 6 March 2020

  • Government should invest £31 billion over 20 years on new transport in these cities, targeting those where congestion is worst
  • New analysis shows economic challenges – not infrastructure – are biggest immediate issue for most cities

The Government should set out in the Budget how it will target transport investment in major cities where existing congestion is holding back productivity, according to new research by Centre for Cities, which compared average commuting speeds in Britain’s 62 largest cities and towns.

Analysing average commuting speeds in Britain’s 62 largest cities and towns, the report finds that transport is holding back economic growth in large cities such as Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham where commuting speeds into their city centres stand out for the time that they take.

Other cities and large towns meanwhile will need to deal with more acute economic challenges before congestion-busting tops their list, it finds.

The Prime Minister has lamented the UK’s ‘inadequate infrastructure’. Addressing poorly-performing transport networks in cities plagued by the worst congestion is one way to close the productivity gap between cities in the North and Midlands and those in the South – and to ‘level up’ the national economy.

Indeed, recent research by Centre for Cities has shown how much the national economy is missing out on because most of the UK’s large cities fall well behind their European counterparts. For example, Birmingham’s economy being an estimated £11 billion a year smaller than it would expected to be, while in Manchester it is £15 billion a year.

The report urges the Government to:

  • Invest £31 billion in urban transport outside London over the next 20 years, in line with calls from the National Infrastructure Commission.
  • Agree to fund new infrastructure where the cities have come up with 25% of the capital locally, with some coming from congestion charging – this could raise £300 million a year for new infrastructure in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol alone.
  • Give metro mayors and other city leaders freedom to decide what transport improvements the capital should be spent on.

The report also shows that London is also one of the cities most at risk of congestion holding back future growth: that suggests further investment in the capital’s transport infrastructure, such as Crossrail 2, is needed if it is to continue to grow in the coming decades.

Cities where congestion is less of a current barrier to productivity, such as Derby, Doncaster and Middlesbrough, face an economic challenge other than transport: the lack of demand to travel into their overly retail-focussed city centres. This is a much bigger problem and means addressing skills gaps and office space provision first and then being ready to invest in transport infrastructure as their growth picks up.

Centre for Cities Chief Executive Andrew Carter said:

“We must not make the mistake of thinking that investment in trains, trams and buses will automatically create economic growth – it won’t. But a failure to invest in transport in congested cities where it is needed will stall growth and cost the UK economy billions of pounds.

“Different places face very different challenges. Where transport is one of those challenges, the Government should accept National Infrastructure Commission’s recommendation to spend £32 billion on new transport in cities outside London. This will add capacity to the transport network, make it easier for commuters into congested city centres and add billions to the national economy.

“But national and local government should be cautious of spreading transport investment too thinly. Investing in transport infrastructure where demand, rather than supply, is the issue is unlikely to bring more prosperity to these places. Policy must instead tailor its approach to the challenges these cities face.”

Notes to editors

About Centre for Cities

  • Centre for Cities is a research and policy institute, dedicated to improving the economic success of UK cities.
  • We are a charity that works with cities, business and Whitehall to develop and implement policy that supports the performance of urban economies.
  • We do this through impartial research and knowledge exchange.

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