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As devolution gathers pace, civil engineers could soon be thinking less about delivering ‘national’ infrastructure and more about connections within and between city regions and communities. ICE Vice President Adrian Coy looks at this new era.
In leading on developing and researching ICE’s forthcoming State of the Nation report on infrastructure and devolution, I have been struck by the enthusiasm of politicians, ICE members and other stakeholders.
Politicians have for some time recognised the importance of national infrastructure and now enthuse about the connections that can be made within and between city regions, to link communities and enable economic growth at a sub-national level.
Top officers in local government, who over many years have tried in the face of austerity to do more with less, now see the potential to work with their neighbours to do what they have always wanted – improve the prosperity and quality of life of the communities they serve.
Civil engineers recognise the opportunities to be gained in delivering sub-national infrastructure and in investing in the engineers of tomorrow who will have an opportunity to reprise the transformational role of previous generations.
My experience tells me that for every opportunity there are many more challenges. The political challenge from devolution is one of restructuring local government further, which may divert attention away from the goal of generating growth. The financial challenge is to squeeze every penny out of devolved capital while convincing Government new infrastructure has a whole-life revenue consequence. The environmental and social challenges are that new infrastructure must be both sustainable and acceptable to society.
The role of civil engineers is to creatively find solutions to these challenges. However, these are not all technical solutions to physical problems: well-designed infrastructure can also resolve economic, environmental and social difficulties, and help drive the political debate at national and local levels so that society and business benefits.
The devolved nations have developed long-term infrastructure strategies that provide a template for emerging bodies such as Transport for the North. New alliances of local authorities and LEPs are breaking down traditional boundaries, political as well as geographic, to explore the enabling potential of infrastructure. Alliances such as Midlands Connect and England’s Economic Heartland are enthusiastically exploring sub-national networks that connect cities and towns with ports and airports, and are examining the potential impacts on housing, jobs, training and inward investment.
The breadth of understanding that devolution of infrastructure responsibilities is about much more than transport connections has also struck me. For example, our new city regions need to be digitally connected, must be resilient to climate change, and could potentially influence energy demand and local renewable energy policy.
Infrastructure at a sub-national level must of course link to the national level and so the ICE State of the Nation report on devolution and infrastructure will inform the work of the National Needs Assessment and the National Infrastructure Commission. Government policy may also need to change to provide a long-term national plan for infrastructure.
The consultation phase of State of the Nation continues and I look forward to further engagement on devolution. I have no doubt further opportunities and challenges will emerge but I hope the enthusiasm for change will continue to dominate our discussions.
ICE’s State of the Nation: Devolution will be published in late June.
Adrian Coy is ICE Vice President for membership and chair of the State of the Nation steering group.