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UK must modernise local transport to make the most of HS2

ANALYSIS: Sir John Armitt's recent call for extra funding to be released to support local transport infrastructure improvements in UK cities has sound logic, is persuasive and is supported by a weight of previous detailed work that he has been involved in.07 Aug 2018

At the weekend, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Sir John said UK government ministers should sign off on £43 billion of additional funding between now and 2040 to pay for  major infrastructure programmes in the fastest growing and most congested cities" in the UK, "such as new trams and rapid bus networks".

Sir John, who chairs the UK's National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), said the investment – which would come on top of that earmarked for existing projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail 2 – would serve to ensure that the HS2 high speed rail project achieves its full potential.

Linking the need for improvements in local transport infrastructure to the HS2 project risks critics of the high speed rail project interpreting the funding call as a call to increase the HS2 budget further, and pointing it out as a sign that too much money is being wasted on the flagship initiative.

However, Sir John is right to highlight that investment in HS2 alone is not enough. The productivity gains HS2 promises are at risk unless issues with local transport infrastructure and congestion in UK cities are addressed too.

As he put it, "we cannot simply construct a new high speed rail line and leave it at that: to get the biggest bang for our buck we need to think about the whole journey that passengers will take".

Journeys via the new HS2 network will play a major part in speeding up travel between London and the major regional hubs in the UK, helping businesses in those cities to connect to new customers at home and abroad. However, in this context, it is end-to-end journeys that matter – currently travellers face delay and disruption when completing their journeys in those cities due to limitations with the local transport infrastructure in place. This will continue without major investment.

Local transport schemes have been under-funded for a number of years. Local authorities have slashed their budgets for such initiatives since the 2008 economic crash and, while governments since have launched competitions for funding, the level of money made available to authorities has been relatively small and below what is needed to tackle increasing congestion.

The problems faced with local transport in UK cities are widely recognised and this has been a topic heavily discussed and debated for decades. In the past 20 years, various governments have commissioned and then analysed white papers on the topic, prompting isolated solutions with little or no impact.

What has been lacking has been an overall strategy on what should be invested in transport in our cities – the creation of the NIC, the remit it has been given, and the political will behind the organisation promises to change that. There is now a robust structural framework for UK infrastructure spending decisions.

Sir John's comments in The Sunday Telegraph cannot be viewed in isolation. The views reflect recommendations made in the NIC's inaugural National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), published last month. In that assessment, the NIC recommended that the government commits £43bn in extra transport funding for regional cities in the UK to 2040.

His, and the NIC's, recommendations will also have been shaped by work on the National Needs Assessment (NNA) project in 2015/2016. Sir John, then president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, chaired an executive group behind the NNA, which was published in October 2016 and, in outlining future infrastructure needs, was seen as a bit of a precursor to the NIC's NIA.

Of course, ministers are not obliged to implement the NIC's recommendations. However, the NIA is likely to be very persuasive given the detailed work it has involved, well researched and led by eight very qualified commissioners, including Sir John.  Also, on the basis that the NIC's recommendations are clearly no pipe dream as Sir John said, falling as they do within the 1.2% of GDP 'fiscal envelope' set by the government.

The conclusion reached that it is worthwhile investing significant additional funding to modernise local transport infrastructure, and in integrating those schemes with HS2 and other national networks, is well thought-through and deserves serious backing.

We may get clues to what the government's initial view of the NIA's recommendations is in the Autumn Statement, but it may be that we will have to wait for the formal response to the assessment next year to see whether the bold vision for local transport infrastructure and the associated prioritisation of funding is something the government will commit to. The case for it to do so is both compelling and urgent.

Robbie Owen is an infrastructure expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.