Armitt speech on principles for urban infrastructure

Sir John Armitt's speech at launch of final report of the Next Step for Cities programme.

Published: 7 Oct 2020

By: Ben Wilson

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Portrait of Sir John Armitt

Sir John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, delivered a speech today (7 October 2020) at the launch of the Commission’s report, Principles for effective urban infrastructure. The launch event was co-hosted with Centre for Cities. The text of Sir John’s speech can be found below.


Before I begin let me thank our hosts – to Andrew and his team at Centre for Cities – for organising today’s event and their continued support for our work.

Today we mark the culmination of our ‘Next Steps for Cities’ programme, which came out of our first National Infrastructure Assessment in 2018.

The success of this, in no small part, has been down to the enthusiasm and commitment of cities across the country to work with us and come together to share information and ideas – and it’s great that so many of you have been able to join us this morning, particularly at such a busy time.

A little over a year ago, city leaders and metro mayors gathered at our Cities Summit to express their support for the recommendations we made on urban transport in the National Infrastructure Assessment.

Our analysis was that with burgeoning populations, urban centres are becoming increasingly congested. In every region, transport systems are struggling to keep up.

There was consensus with our view that to unlock the full potential of cities and regions, ministers must give city leaders greater autonomy over transport decisions and longer-term funding settlements.

And, I was pleased that the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, was able to join us that day.

Since then, ‘levelling up’ has become part of the political lexicon. And at the Budget earlier in the year, the government took a welcome first step by committing to devolved transport budgets for city regions with mayors.

Now, the need for additional investment and a new vision for local infrastructure is just as significant as ever, but the environment we find ourselves in is altogether less familiar.

The coronavirus outbreak has not only had a huge personal and social price for so many, but it has severely rattled the national and global economy. And I know that many of you joining this event today have faced unprecedented pressures, at the frontline of helping the most vulnerable in our communities.

The pandemic has changed our lives beyond recognition and instinctively we question whether some of the changes – and particularly these new patterns of work and mobility – will endure after the crisis.

There is one thing about which I am confident.

While we may not go back to old patterns of work and mobility, different and new patterns of demand will likely emerge. It is unlikely that we will see an end to the desire or need to travel within and between our cities and towns.

History suggests that cities can and do bounce back from major shocks.

As national lockdown measures eased, one of the less welcome aspects we saw was the rapid return of congestion and the resulting air pollution – even while many offices and businesses remained closed.

Cities have been congested and car-dependent for too long.

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

Our National Infrastructure Assessment estimated that more than £43 billion would be needed between now and 2040 – enough to fund major new schemes like rail tunnels or new tramlines in a handful of larger cities and bus rapid transit networks in smaller places, as well as an increase in day-to-day budgets for all cities.

Alongside a fresh approach to identifying major projects, we think the case remains compelling for further devolution and multi-year funding settlements for transport to help all cities plan and prepare themselves for the future.

I hope the guidance we are launching today goes some way towards ensuring that city leaders can stand ready for the challenges and opportunities this offers, when you are in a position to address those.

Our ‘Next Steps for Cities’ programme was built around a series of events for cities to share knowledge.

Alongside this we were pleased to have been able to convene a group of pioneering cities who have been willing to work with the Commission, sharing their successes and their challenges for the benefit of others.

Our work with colleagues in Basildon, Derby, Exeter, Liverpool City Region and West Yorkshire has helped us draw together valuable lessons on how local infrastructure strategies can make a positive difference for citizens. Can I repeat our thanks for the time and energy they have invested in this programme.

Our findings offer eight key principles for effective and ambitious strategies for urban infrastructure. Let me run through them briefly…

First, the starting point should always be the vision.

An infrastructure strategy should demonstrate a bold, yet realistic long-term vision that sets the trajectory for future change. We should develop infrastructure strategies based around achieving our vision, rather than the other way around.

Next, is the scoping phase.

Scoping sets clear boundaries within which the strategy should be developed. It might involve neighbouring authorities and it is likely to consider issues beyond infrastructure, such as health and wellbeing, inclusion, environment and the economy.

From here, consultation, as ever, is vital.

The most successful infrastructure plans and strategies have emerged from processes that have sought to build consensus, including with citizens, internal colleagues and across political parties.

Of course, these strategies also need to be grounded in rigorous analysis.

Cities will need a range of evidence sources about their existing assets, future needs and the benefits of intervention to inform their strategies.

Cities should also consider the full wide range of options for meeting their objectives. Not considering options risks missing solutions that might offer better social value.

Options such as maintenance and upgrades are often more cost-effective and efficient than building wholly new infrastructure.

Next, consideration must be given to whether the strategy is adaptable to uncertainties and risk: projects need to be stress tested.

Then, the priorities for action should be clearly identified and linked to the objectives.

The best schemes may be those that are part of a longer term direction of travel, even if they do not have the best return when viewed individually.

Prioritisation is key – an infrastructure strategy should not be an unachievable wish list.

Finally, we have to evaluate.

Cities should build in evaluation from the early stages to ensure that budget and resource is approved alongside the main schemes or interventions.

These eight principles – set out more fully in the report – are also complemented by work undertaken by the Commission’s Design Group and published earlier this year. They developed a set of four principles – climate, people, places and value – drawn up principally for national projects but equally applicable to local infrastructure schemes.

The design principles offer a framework for ensuring good design is considered at every stage of a project.

Together, we hope these resources will help cities to reflect their own economic and social priorities in a place-based, strategic way, built on local knowledge and accountability.

As you are embarking on your own local strategies, I hope our guidance and principles will be a useful tool for ensuring your cities and regions can become the best that they can be.

Infrastructure has an incredible, game-changing ability when we get it right.

I hope our report demonstrates how this success can become a reality for every urban centre across the country.

And, of course, I hope central government will feel able to play their part in releasing the powers and resources you need – whether through the National Infrastructure Strategy anticipated later this year, or other policy statements.

Thank you.

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