A new APPGI and ICE report proposes measures to strengthen rail infrastructure planning and delivery in the UK.
A year since its publication, the future of the £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands (IRP) remains uncertain.
Earlier this year the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) and the ICE launched a consultation on how we can accelerate implementation of this vital investment.
One message was clear from the responses: industry, local governments and the public need clarity on which projects will be in the IRP pipeline.
This will help to scale up and coordinate the resources needed to deliver the individual projects.
It will also unlock many of the complementary schemes needed to enable the wider environmental, social and economic benefits of the IRP investment.
However, the development of the IRP also shows that how we plan major transport investment needs to be improved.
Making the right choices is key if the UK is to meet its long-term objectives like net zero, climate resilience and levelling up.
What have the political parties said about the IRP?
Recent comments have suggested that rail investment will be a priority for both the main political parties.
Liz Truss indicated that the Conservatives could reverse some of the cuts to Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) announced in the IRP.
This would see a new high-speed line built between Liverpool and Hull via a new station in Bradford.
Labour also used its party conference to commit to delivering NPR and High Speed 2.
This cross-party backing for rail investment is good news for supporters of the IRP. But political ambition must urgently translate into firm decisions about which projects will be taken forward.
However, the APPGI and ICE’s focus is not on which individual projects should or should not happen.
Instead, our report suggests common sense solutions to help make the right decisions and optimise delivery of major rail investments.
A national transport strategy can improve decision-making
The IRP’s development has highlighted some of the shortcomings affecting how decisions about major transport infrastructure are made in the UK.
The government has promised the IRP will deliver transformational change for the North and Midlands.
Beyond improving connectivity, this will mean unlocking wider opportunities that maximise the social, economic and environmental benefits of the investment for local communities.
However, critics have already questioned the strength of the evidence behind key decisions in the IRP, the feasibility of the proposed improvements and whether the right outcomes are being targeted.
Developing a national transport strategy for England could help address some of these issues in future major transport projects.
An overarching strategy would improve evidence collection and analysis to strengthen the link between major investments, the public’s needs and long-term national objectives.
It could ensure the integration of major projects to provide users with an accessible, convenient and reliable multi-modal transport network.
Improving decision-making can in turn strengthen project delivery.
A clear focus on outcomes from the start can help reduce cost and time overruns that are common in major projects.
Responses to the consultation also emphasised the benefits of collaboration between delivery partners and of genuine stakeholder engagement for meeting cost and time targets.
Publishing an integrated investment plan setting out a continuous programme of how and when the investment will be spent would also build supply chain confidence.
This was recommended by the Oakervee Review of HS2 in 2020 to help reduce boom and bust delivery cycles, but it wasn’t taken forward by the government.
However, at a time of economic and political uncertainty, an investment plan would help mitigate the rising risks from inflation and competition for investment between different priorities.
The investment plan would cut across political cycles, making the IRP more resilient to changes in the external environment.
The investment proposed in the IRP is vital for the North and Midlands and for the UK as a whole to meet its long-term goals.
However, the strategy faces a series of economic and political risks that will only become more challenging if uncertainty about it is prolonged.
Post-Covid pandemic questions about transport funding and demand, rising inflation and competing demands for public investment all need to be considered as we move forward with the IRP.
The recommendations set out in the APPGI and ICE paper aim to address those challenges by enabling better decision-making and more efficient delivery of major rail projects.
The key recommendations are:
- Develop the IRP into an approved pipeline of projects around which stakeholders can plan with certainty.
- Publish an integrated investment plan setting out how and when the investment in the IRP will be spent.
- Develop a national transport strategy for England.
- Use collaborative delivery models to enable efficient delivery of the IRP projects.
- Prioritise meaningful engagement with key stakeholders throughout the project life cycle.