Devolution: A chance for democratic and strategic infrastructure planning

As devolution picks up pace in the countries, cities and counties of the UK, we look at the opportunities it could provide for improving our infrastructure.

Upgrade works at Manchester Victoria Station. The city gained more devolved powers earlier this year
Upgrade works at Manchester Victoria Station. The city gained more devolved powers earlier this year
  • Updated: 21 August, 2015
  • Author: Andrew Wescott, ICE Head of Policy and Amy Mount, Green Alliance Senior Policy Advisor

In the run up to the general election, calls for a more strategic national approach to infrastructure delivery layered on top of one another, in expert reports, workshops, and conference speeches, until they built into a clamour. ‘Strategic’ in this context means long term, evidence based, taking into account measures to shape demand as well as supply, and considering ‘green’ alongside ‘grey’ infrastructure.

While there is still no national strategy, a recent expert roundtable hosted by ICE and Green Alliance raised the need to factor the local, regional and national into a strategic approach. City and county devolution is gathering momentum, alongside continuing devolution to Scotland and Wales. The sub-national lens provided at this scale enables a place-based focus that is difficult at national level. It’s a scale that makes sense to people: they know it, they travel across it regularly, and it often forms a strong part of their identity, whether Scots, Mancunian, or Cornish. The devolution trend offers the opportunity for more democratic infrastructure planning processes, which would result in more accountable decisions.

Infrastructure cannot be depoliticised

Much pre-election infrastructure debate centred on depoliticising the decision-making process for long-term infrastructure projects. Those in favour ignored the fact that infrastructure policy, particularly concerning major, transformational projects, is political by its nature. There should be debate around projects which impact on the lives of multiple generations and the fabric of the British landscape. We should seek to understand how decisions made now will reverberate through the decades, and we should aim to mitigate the negative impacts of these decisions.

Opening up the decision making process and embracing its political nature does not necessitate that project delivery takes longer. It just means that we have to involve people in strategic conversations before specific projects begin, as Green Alliance has outlined in its report, Opening up infrastructure planning. We’re more likely to end up with infrastructure that society needs and wants, if more people’s views are sought out and considered. This includes agreeing on the purpose of our infrastructure. What are we seeking to achieve by building a particular piece of infrastructure? And what purpose may the same infrastructure serve in 20, 30 or 50 years’ time?

Understanding the purpose of our infrastructure enables us to generate options about the most appropriate and effective ways to achieve that purpose. And these options make for a richer discussion within society about the types of infrastructure that enables us to achieve a thriving low-carbon economy and a better quality of life.

Rethinking infrastructure

Achieving growth and well-being does not have to be about building more infrastructure. It makes sense to start by using what we have more efficiently. The UK has a huge infrastructure asset base, and looking into ways of retrofitting technology to make this more efficient is something that requires more attention. Devolution and the growth of our urban spaces provides a great opportunity for demand-side interventions.

For example, as we expand our housing stock we should seek to benefit from district heating; as city centres grow, the use of public and active transport can be extended, incentivising shifts from one mode to another; and the internet of things could facilitate innovative ways of reducing energy and water use. The Scottish Government is leading the way to the demand side, with its recent decision to declare building energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority.

The devolution opportunity

Devolution is widely supported. Empowering local people with greater responsibilities is deemed as an inherently good thing. However, we need a transparent and timely discussion around the objectives the community seeks to achieve, followed by an evidence based assessment of the infrastructure options to deliver these objectives. Local decision-makers have to be accountable to those they serve.

The opportunities provided by devolution could easily turn to nought if national and local politicians fail to communicate effectively. Again, understanding one another’s objectives is central to this. There needs to be open dialogue between national politicians and the emerging layer of decision-makers, whether they are mayors, leaders of combined authorities, or parliamentarians. This discussion is particularly important when it comes to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects. Those projects which can benefit many but impact on a localised few are often the ones that cause most controversy. Early engagement, offering a set of real alternatives to achieve an objective and local champions for these projects is vital to their success.

Devolution provides the opportunity for revitalised infrastructure planning. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, as each place will have its own strengths and limitations. And to really maximise the benefit, we still need to understand how it all fits into a wider national strategy for infrastructure. But the process is very much underway: Manchester secured another wave of devolved responsibilities in July; in the same month, Cornwall became the first county to bag new powers in a deal that left open the potential for further devolution; and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill currently making its way through Parliament creates a framework for many more devolution deals.