Armitt: Speech on Next Steps for Cities

Published: 27 Mar 2019



Portrait of Sir John Armitt

Below is the text of National Infrastructure Commission Chair Sir John Armitt’s speech to the Next Steps for Cities event held in Birmingham on 27 March

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Good morning, and welcome to the first event in our next steps for cities programme. It’s gratifying to see representatives from such a wide range of councils from across England joining this discussion – especially with local elections on the horizon.

It’s good to be back in Birmingham. I was here last November for a roundtable with West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and representatives from West Midlands councils and businesses, talking about our National Infrastructure Assessment.

 Indeed, I’ve done regional visits up and down the country since August, talking to local stakeholders about our recommendations.

 At each such discussion, our recommendations on devolved funding for transport for cities has been front and centre. There’s an appetite for them.

However, that vision all depends on what the government decides in its National Infrastructure Strategy.

Earlier this month in the Spring statement, the Chancellor announced plans, assuming Brexit is agreed, for a full three-year Spending Review before the summer recess, to be concluded alongside an Autumn Budget. The strategy will be published alongside it.

Their relevance for cities here today is abundantly clear. The spending review will allocate the funding; the strategy will give the government’s formal response to our Assessment – including our cities recommendations.

So, what are we saying? In the Assessment we identified that it is England’s cities that are the crucial dynamos for future economic growth.

Many cities – both large and small – are already experiencing significant growth, as they compete to attract high-quality, high-skill jobs. That’s a real boon, but it’s not without headaches.

Growth can lead to congestion and housing shortages. Without properly planned and funded local infrastructure, cities face becoming gridlocked, and rising house prices mean that more people who might want to move to a city – skilled graduates, for example – are priced out.

Addressing this requires stable funding and a long-term strategy.

Unfortunately, the current system could almost have been designed to prevent that. Central government funding for cities is short-term, fragmented and inconsistent.

 Mayors outside London frequently tell me they lack the powers to set transport strategies, which can ensure consistency between local housing and infrastructure plans.

We set out an ambitious, but achievable solution in our Assessment. Government needs to give local city leaders the right powers and funding to set and deliver infrastructure strategies.

It’s about giving our cities and city regions the key to unlock long-term growth. To do that, we set out some clear steps we want to see.

First, the cities themselves need to develop integrated strategies for housing, employment and transport, to support growth and give people more choices about where to live and work.

Second, to make that possible, the government needs to provide all cities with stable five-year budgets for urban transport infrastructure, following the model already in place for Highways England and Network Rail, as well as any additional powers needed to look at transport and housing in an integrated way.

Third, additional funding should be made available for transformational new transport schemes and strategies in the fastest growing and most congested cities, with the recipient cities contributing at least 25% of funding and 50% in London.

Our assessment identified three priority areas for transport investment, the first two of which were strategic corridors between cities and international gateways.

But the third, city transport, has too often been overlooked: while government has prioritised major upgrades to transport between cities, transport within cities has seen the least progress.

Addressing that won’t be easy. The Commission works within a long-term funding guideline for economic infrastructure of just 1.2% of GDP each year. At the moment, this spending is dominated by major rail projects, mainly HS2.

But, if we look further ahead, there is scope for more funding to be reallocated towards within city transport infrastructure.

The need is abundantly clear, and within the Commission’s fiscal remit, we identified £43 billion of additional investment that could be made available to cities outside London by 2040.

So, we know the scale of the challenge – how do we address it? Well, if our cities are going to persuade the government to allocate the additional funding that we have recommended, then they need to show that they’ve got a smart plan for spending it.

That’s what today is all about.

We want to help England’s city authorities to learn from each other as they prepare ambitious plans for transport and housing, so that if our ideas are accepted, councils are well-placed to make the most of the increased funding and greater autonomy that would be provided.

We want to demonstrate to government that with the right powers and funding, cities are ready and willing to develop serious, credible and ambitious infrastructure strategies. And that, with those strategies in place, there is huge potential to transform local economies and communities.

When going around the country to talk about the Assessment, it’s clear cities face common challenges.

If these aren’t approached in a concerted and connected way, we can see two problems: a lot of work ends up being duplicated; and the solutions that are adopted could ultimately mean someone travelling from one city faces different rules and regulations in another.

City leaders have demonstrated to us already a clear interest in working with other cities across the country to share experience and learn from one another.

The aim of today’s event – and others this year – is therefore to bring together colleagues from across England’s cities and create a platform for accessing leading experts and cutting-edge ideas on overcoming the challenges you’re all facing.

So, for example, future events will consider the efficient use of road space and funding and financing infrastructure.

We want the outputs from this programme to generate an open, authoritative source of guidance for city authorities. As well as encouraging knowledge sharing, we are working with five cities as detailed case studies: West Yorkshire, Liverpool City Region, Derby, Basildon and Exeter.

Each is at a different stage in developing strategic plans and facing different contextual challenges.

We want to understand what goes into creating an effective infrastructure strategy through first-hand experience. In doing so, we can help these five cities to learn from the experience of others that have already developed joined up strategies.

 At the end of the process, the five cities and the Commission plan to mark the end of the programme with an event to identify the lessons learnt and inspire other cities to develop robust and integrated strategies of their own.

That’s our vision. But its impact is contingent upon our Assessment recommendations being successfully translated into specific outcomes in both the spending review and the National Infrastructure Strategy.

Therein lies the challenge.

The Commission has played its part in working through the evidence and making the recommendations on devolved funding. We will continue to push this agenda with government, but we need our cities to strike up a chorus behind us.

If you believe that the National Infrastructure Assessment will help your city deliver better infrastructure, you cannot afford to sit, fingers crossed, and wait for it to happen.

We would like to see local councils out there making the case for our recommendations, and making it difficult for government to ignore this potentially transformational change.

Part of that is simply to be vocal in your support, and to ensure that the profile of this issue remains high – with the media, with MPs and politicians, and with the wider industry.

But it will also be important to show government that you’re ready to go, with innovative, achievable visions for what you’d do with these new powers.

Cities with strong ideas that could transform their infrastructure cannot afford to be shy: get out there, and let ministers see what they would get in return for their investment in a new wave of devolution.

Be ambitious. City leaders are central to making this vision a reality and make the public case for further devolution.

Indeed, the more that the leaders of our cities can speak increasingly with one voice in favour of this approach, with the strategies ready to go if, or when, our ideas are taken up, the greater the chance that it will happen.

There’s a clear window of opportunity. Government is in the early stages of both the spending review and the strategy.

Over the coming months, England’s cities should make it abundantly clear to Whitehall what their priorities are, and that our recommendations are a foundation on which to build them.

If you don’t, then the risk is that devolved infrastructure funding for cities gets stuck on the launch pad.

But if we can grab this opportunity for change with both hands, we could bring about the most far-reaching changes for local government in England since devolution and the creation of city mayors.

Today’s knowledge sharing event is about how we make that happen: giving you the tools to make the case for devolved infrastructure funding difficult to ignore.

We want to focus today’s discussion on the fundamentals of designing an integrated infrastructure plan.

You’ll hear about the key principles for developing an integrated plan, with insights from Dr Janice Morphet from UCL and Jeremy Skinner from the GLA.

You’ll also learn how evaluation and data can help to evidence decision making, with Lynne Miles from the What Works centre for local growth and Stefan Webb from the future cities catapult.

So, develop new contacts and ideas. Learn from those who are demonstrating best practice, and from each other.

Most of all, be inspired!

Thank you.

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