Sir John Armitt - Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission

This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.

While the last general election was held just seven months ago, the backdrop against which voters turned out for the ballot box was a world barely recognisable today. Front and centre of the government’s offering to the British people was a promise to “level up” regions, with the Prime Minister pledging to bring transformational change to the Midlands and the North.

The government has been clear that it wants to place this commitment at the heart of the economic recovery, as we learn to live with the Covid-19 virus while attempting to protect jobs for the long term.

One aspect of this work is improving public transport links, particularly between larger towns and cities in the North and Midlands. The National Infrastructure Commission has been asked to explore how best to integrate and sequence various significant investments in our rail system, to inform a new Integrated Rail Plan which government intends to publish by the end of this year.

We have been grateful for the valuable input of various local authorities and regional networks as we have embarked on this work, and look forward to continued conversations as we prepare our final analysis for government.

But alongside this intercity rail, there remains a significant need for improved transport provision within our urban areas outside London.

While the rapid move to widescale home working has led some to suggest a shift in long term trends of urbanisation, characterised by far fewer large offices and regular passengers, I think such predictions may be premature.

The socio-cultural value of our centres of economic activity should not be underestimated. And for many key workers and those in frontline service sectors, an ‘escape to the country’ would be inconceivable. History suggests that cities can and do bounce back from major shocks.

There remains a significant need for improved transport provision within our urban areas outside London.

The rapid return of congestion and resulting air pollution have been some of the less welcome aspects of lockdown lifting – even while offices and other businesses remain closed. Cities have been crowded and car-dependent for decades, and in fast-growing locations spread across England’s regions, this has been a constraint on growth.

Addressing this longstanding gap in our infrastructure provision will take sustained investment in targeted priority areas, at a scale significantly above what we have seen in the past.

Our National Infrastructure Assessment estimated that more than £30 billion would be needed between now and 2040 – enough to fund schemes like rail tunnels or new tramlines in a handful of larger cities, as well as bus rapid transit networks for their smaller counterparts.

Such projects can’t be delivered overnight. They take time to plan, meaning that work must start now on a process for selecting priority areas, getting funding packages agreed and development underway. Adopting a proactive, strategic approach to this investment will lead to better outcomes, compared to waiting for projects to ‘emerge,’ as has often been the case in the past.

And getting ahead of the game, promising substantial investment in the places with the greatest potential for growth, is the best thing government can do to build confidence and encourage private investment to make local economies take off – at a time when that is needed more than ever.

Even before the present crisis, government took a helpful first step in its spring Budget by committing to devolved transport budgets for city regions with mayors.

Ministers should now build on this by devolving funding for transport to local leaders in all cities or towns with a population above around 100,00o – approximately the size at which congestion starts to become a problem.

To echo the approach of Re-thinking Local, local authorities are best placed to develop their own plans for transport networks that will best serve local needs, cutting congestion and helping embed a lower carbon future. Achieving these benefits will mean handing over more control to local authorities – not just those with metro mayors.

Proper devolution and commitment to major new projects would enable councils to set and deliver infrastructure strategies that respond to the economic and social needs of their communities – improving connections to employers, supporting new housing, and enhancing quality of life with better cycling and walking provision.

We are confronting a period that has sent shockwaves through how we navigate our lives and instinctively we question whether these changes will endure after the crisis. Yet, however difficult it might be to imagine a return to normality, it is unlikely that present circumstances will end the desire or need to travel within and between our cities and towns.

As the government attempts to steer the economy through these era-defining challenges, flourishing and well-connected regions should remain at the heart of its vision.