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Levelling up: pushing for infrastructure that's more than the sum of its parts

16 June 2022

ICE Fellow Judith Sykes discusses our new levelling up policy position statement, highlighting the power of local needs assessments to deliver essential infrastructure interventions. 

Levelling up: pushing for infrastructure that's more than the sum of its parts
Nottingham was featured in the Levelling Up Opportunity Index, which spotlights communities that would benefit the most from government investment. Image credit: Destinos Espectaculares/Shutterstock

Earlier this year, ICE launched a consultation on the government’s Levelling Up White Paper. Today we publish our policy position statement setting out our recommendations.

The Levelling Up White Paper acknowledges that local investment data is ‘insufficiently granular’ and that local needs assessments will help infrastructure projects deliver broader outcomes, not just engineering outputs, to create additional social value.

Placing infrastructure in the context of local needs also helps build public support for projects. Many successful Levelling Up Fund first-round bids involved infrastructure that improved the public realm and local amenities.

The Future High Street Fund led to proposals covering local infrastructure improvements as varied as electric vehicle charging points, public and active transport enhancement, and mixed-use community development.

We are seeing a shift in understanding of how infrastructure can support social equity goals.

Understanding local needs

Working with communities also supports adoption of the transformative approaches required to deliver the levelling up agenda, climate resilience and net zero goals.

In Paris, the 15-minute city initiative has built widespread support for pedestrianisation and cycle routes, reducing pollution and traffic emissions, and increasing community resilience through accessible amenities. Although this has involved few big, bold gestures, the changes have been transformative.

Local and regional authorities are well placed to enable this joined-up approach of essential improvements, community enhancements and ambitious plans.

But resources and skills will be crucial to ensure that investment delivers effective outcomes in the immediate and long term.

Every Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) across England has produced a Strategic Economic Plan, highlighting critical investment and regeneration needs across their region.

These plans, though subject to alterations in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, set out clear and ambitious proposals that can incorporate the key tenets of climate change and net zero alongside levelling up.

Although infrastructure programmes are often discussed at regional or national level, the focus must also be on smaller interventions that can be scaled.

Local needs assessments, informed through community engagement, can outline where infrastructure can be part of the solution to inequalities, and can drill down at a micro level to determine what is required.

Multi-outcome infrastructure

A clear and compelling message from ICE’s consultation is that levelling up and the climate emergency cannot be treated individually.

Any serious discussion about infrastructure and levelling up must include climate change and our 2030 net zero targets. They are intrinsically linked – and the UK government needs to join their outcomes together.

Of course, in a post-pandemic world, finances are finite and the government should identify opportunities to create integrated and aligned efficiencies wherever possible.

Infrastructure will play a huge role in enabling better economic and social opportunities through improved connectivity, job creation, and access to services.

The government’s Green Finance Strategy – due later this year – will outline an integrated approach to investment across net zero and levelling up.

As a nation, and as individual regions and communities, we must invest in projects and programmes with multiple social and environmental outcomes, including resilience, health, prosperity, inclusion and carbon reduction.

And yet, notably there is no mention of net zero or other environmental outcomes in any of the original 12 levelling up missions.

Aligning levelling up with the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The government has also committed to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 target for achieving them aligns directly with the timeframe for the levelling up missions.

Indeed, research has shown that 72% of SDG indicators are linked to networked infrastructure investment and 92% when all forms of infrastructure are considered.

Pressure from industry, and from communities themselves, is vital to ensure that the SDGs remain a key consideration in all infrastructure programmes.

However, procurement models and processes in infrastructure tenders remain a significant barrier to achieving the integrated approaches we need.

Central government has the power to address this by embedding appropriate principles in tender processes and selection of delivery partners.

As an industry we must also work to remove any procurement approach that limits this potential for multi-outcome investment.

Design is critical to unlocking value

Simply investing in infrastructure will not guarantee levelling up outcomes are achieved in practice. Infrastructure must be designed to ensure that it meets local needs and is accessible and inclusive.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has identified four design principles to guide planning and delivery of infrastructure projects in the context of climate, people, places and value.

By integrating those design principles into comprehensive needs assessments, local authorities and LEPs could create social equity and secure public support for projects which may otherwise simply be regarded as disruptive and inconvenient.

Ensuring that infrastructure is designed for people and to generate additional social value beyond its main purpose can transform the fabric of local communities.

In many towns and cities activists are championing improvements for their neighbourhoods.

These networks can provide valuable insight into the lived application of the NIC’s design principles, particularly in the context of potential partnerships, metrics for analysing investment outcomes, and holistic community approaches.

The crucial role of engineers

The five key recommendations from the ICE’s policy position statement are:

  • There should be clearer alignment between levelling up and net zero.
  • Local needs assessments are required to achieve optimum outcomes.
  • Where possible, the levelling up missions should be aligned with the UN SDGs.
  • The NIC’s design principles should be applied to infrastructure investment aimed at levelling up.
  • Metrics for measuring progress on levelling up should be geared towards local outcomes.

As the internationally recognised body for chartered engineers, ICE takes great pride in leading the conversation on the power and possibility of infrastructure to benefit lives.

Together, we can inspire other parts of the construction industry by seeking community engagement and local needs assessments, breaking the silos that remain prevalent and limit our thinking, and encouraging collaboration between communities, local authorities, investors and the construction industry.

I encourage us all to be active and brave in pushing for infrastructure that is more than the sum of its parts.

Find out more

Read ICE’s policy position statement on defining the outcomes from levelling up.

Read the document

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  • Judith Sykes, lead fellow for the programme and senior director at Expedition Engineering