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The pace of devolution is hotting up. After powers have been released by Whitehall to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, attention has switched to the gathering pace of devolution in England, particularly to the main cities, like Manchester.
As a former minister I welcome this. However, as a former businessman and a chartered surveyor, I know that businesses – especially those in infrastructure – are concerned about the uncertainty and potential risks this new political framework represents.
Some would much prefer it if there was only one decision-making centre with which to deal and one process. Yet I would argue that devolution represents an opportunity to ensure that we invest, over a sustained period, to update and improve our infrastructure, whether it be in transport, telecoms, or utilities.
First, because the old system of centralised decision-making hasn’t worked. It’s been driven by short term political pressures. So the establishment of the National Infrastructure Plan and a clear commitment from the Treasury to deliver, was the first crucial step in changing our approach to infrastructure investment. The new Infrastructure and Projects Authority exemplifies this drive.
Second, the devolution of powers to our major cities is bringing together the key policy elements which have previously been in narrow ‘silos’. By ensuring that planning, transport and economic development powers and policies are being brought together in our major city regions, we are finally delivering true ‘place-making’. This holistic approach is vital, when forward planning for our long-term infrastructure needs, whether it be in energy generation and distribution, or in road improvements.
Third, the new local decision-making bodies are under a clear obligation to focus on improving local economic growth and competitiveness. In the past, policy has, at best, been a fudge between growth and ‘fairness’; at worst a charter for doing nothing. The fact that city mayors, or combined authorities, will now be focused on economic outcomes, will help change the whole debate.
This is not to say that the process is perfect. As a member of the Communities & Local Government Select Committee I have been hearing evidence from many people about the emerging opportunities and problems from the latest City Deals. The committee’s report makes it clear that sometimes the process has been too ad hoc and failed to engage with and listen to the local people the new arrangements are meant to serve.
Yet overall the direction is clear. There will of course be teething problems along the way. Greater clarity is for example needed about who is responsible for what, especially as far as the public are concerned. However if done well, the shift of powers and funds to key centres of growth around the country offers a real opportunity for sustained investment over the years to come.
Mark Prisk FRICS was first elected as MP for Hertford and Stortford in 2001. He is currently a member of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee and officer of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure. He has previously worked as Minister for State for Business & Enterprise, leading on the modernisation of UK construction procurement and Minister for Housing.