COMMENT | Region must deliver on Budget opportunities

The impact of the novel coronavirus on the Budget 2020 is another reminder that the North West’s infrastructure plans are being devised on a platform of shifting sands, writes Stephen Gleave of Aecom. 

For a region looking for concrete solutions to social and economic inequalities, Chancellor Rishi Sunak talked about “getting it done”. Announcements impacting the North West included money for housing infrastructure and to unlock brownfield sites, a review of the Treasury’s Green Book – the Government’s guide to assessing investment – alongside relocation of Treasury and other Whitehall personnel to the North.

The power of devolution

There was further devolution including five-year funding settlements for city leaders to invest in local transport improvements including a tram-train pilot in Manchester, as well as an upgrade to the M60. So far, so good.

All of us working in building, construction and infrastructure now need to respond with innovative and creative ways to realise these opportunities, reinforcing the momentum and success that has put Manchester at the heart of the region’s prospects. More powers and accountability resting with city leaders rather than with national government departments has to be a good thing. This model is now extended to West Yorkshire, recognising balance across the North.

For those hoping this budget would deliver larger transformative announcements, big decisions, particularly around rail investment, remain on hold. Despite the first leg of High Speed 2 from London to Birmingham getting the go-ahead earlier this year, we are still waiting to find out what will give the North West the rail connectivity it desperately needs. An Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands is currently being devised and we expect to know what it says by the end of the year.

Closing the infrastructure gap

It does, nevertheless, feel that the North can now plan to move from speaking with one voice to delivering the regional improvements we need, and unleash the national and international connectivity potential to support levelling up the UK regions.

The Chancellor did reaffirm commitment to fund the Manchester to Leeds leg of Northern Powerhouse Rail. What we want to see is a full commitment to the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme and integrated master planning across the North.

From regenerating our town centres, to providing affordable, quality housing, we know the North West needs sustained and strategic investment. As Lord Kerslake’s UK2070 Commission said last month, decades of underinvestment mean “time is not on our side” when it comes to getting investment right.

However, decisions over targeting investment can only be made when it is clear what the priorities are at a national level, as well as local priorities around social infrastructure and broader placemaking. This levelling up agenda has to be about more than building.

On the role of planning, further reforms are planned in a forthcoming White Paper, but the emphasis on better development management must be matched with resources into plan making as well as controls.

Pushing for green

What could have been more powerful in Sunak’s budget was a commitment to achieving a zero-carbon future.

Just days before the budget was announced, it emerged that publication of the government’s plan for £100bn of investment to improve transport and move towards net-zero emissions – the National Infrastructure Strategy – would be delayed. To some extent, we are ahead of the game here in the North West.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority Infrastructure Framework 2050 has been developed within the National Infrastructure Commission’s policies on energy, transport, digital, water supply, flooding and blue green infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Strategy is the government’s response to what the National Infrastructure Commission says the country needs.

Levelling up the UK is a complex and continually changing task. Other significant challenges include how the UK can deliver infrastructure and still meet its climate commitments, and what a final Brexit deal will look like. This budget will not go down in the history as the one that levelled up the UK, for obvious reasons. It is the decisions and opportunities in the pipeline that could make huge differences.

What the Chancellor and Government has delivered here is a budget of intent, skewed by an extraordinary event. In professional services, development and construction, we need to pull our collective resources together and seize the opportunities announced this week and the ones on the horizon.

We must also continue to support our regional leaders and lobby national decision-makers to deliver on the commitments made on the budget and on the rhetoric of the election.

We will be judged as a generation by the places we create now.

Stephen Gleave is cities director at AECOM


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