With cities in every region growing in popularity, we are living through a dynamic era for our urban centres. As vibrant hubs for the arts, culture and opportunity, it’s no wonder that people are so clearly voting with their feet and moving to those areas. This is something to be celebrated, but it’s not without its challenges. As populations surge, cities are becoming increasingly congested, with transport systems under strain, declining air quality and more pressure put on housing.
Until recently, decisions about how to remedy these problems were the preserve of Whitehall, but today the devolution agenda is starting to put city leaders in the driving seat. Giving them the powers and resources they need to shape their own destinies is proving to be a great success.
In July, the Commission published its inaugural National Infrastructure Assessment, setting out a vision for meeting infrastructure needs across a 30-year time horizon. One of its pivotal strands is helping cities realise their full potential through transformational investment. And this isn’t just about those with a metro mayor. From Nottingham to Norwich and Brighton to Burnley, we want local leaders in cities of every size, every structure and every location to get more help to create brilliant places to live and work.
By 2040, we recommend that cities should receive around £43 billion of extra money – and importantly, this should be coupled with further powers to enable the delivery of integrated strategies for transport, housing and employment. The pot we’re proposing would mean devolved budgets in every city would be up to 30 per cent higher than current spending allocations.
Cities need stable long-term infrastructure budgets and the autonomy to make the right choices for their areas. Under the existing system, those that don’t have a devolution deal must contend with a patchwork of different funding sources, making it incredibly difficult to design and implement the radical plans required to maximise wellbeing and growth.
The uncertainty this generates often means that planning for transport and housing happens in siloes. Our proposals would make it easier for them to be treated as a common endeavour. Sometimes it seems like new developments are built with the intention that their residents should never leave. With poor connectivity to public transport routes, residents become reliant on the car, with consequences for the environment, their health and social cohesion. Placemaking is a powerful tool that should boost the quality of life of our communities, not compromise it.
The Commission is expecting the Government’s formal response to our Assessment at some point next year, in the form of the UK’s first-ever National Infrastructure Strategy. But, before that, we want to use our expertise to help cities get ahead of the game and start preparing to work up effective strategies for their infrastructure.
To make this happen, we’ve launched an exciting new partnership scheme – supported by the Centre for Cities and the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth – that will bring cities together to share their experiences and learn how to devise ambitious plans for transport, homes and jobs.
As part of this, we will hold a programme of events for city representatives across the country with leading experts from local authorities, industry and academia. We will also work closely with five case study cities and city regions – Basildon, Exeter, Derby, Liverpool City Region and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority including Leeds and Bradford – and provide bespoke advice to help them develop their long-term strategies. These areas will also benefit from the guidance of more established mentor cities.
Our cities are lively hotspots for creativity and innovation, showcasing some of the finest examples of what modern societies have to offer. There can be no doubt that they’re thriving, but the demands they face are greater than ever before. To secure the brightest possible future for our cities, things need to be done differently and power needs to be put into the hands of those that know them best. Our new project will demonstrate the plans that further devolution could make possible and I am hopeful that ministers will accept our recommendations and give cities the resources they need to enact them.
Professor Sadie Morgan is a Commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission.