The Government published its long-awaited paper on "Levelling Up the United Kingdom" in early February 2022. In the paper the Government states that "Levelling Up" is a moral, social and economic programme which has at its focus the spread of opportunity more equally across the UK.
We have taken a look at what the paper might mean for UK infrastructure, focusing on the transport sector in particular.
Six key capitals
The paper addresses six key capitals, which are the drivers of disparity between regions across the UK, and proposes measures to redress the balance in each of these capitals. These capitals are:
- Physical capital - infrastructure, machines and housing.
- Human capital - the skills, health and experience of the workforce.
- Intangible capital - innovation, ideas and patents.
- Financial capital - resources supporting the financing of companies.
- Social capital - the strength of communities, relationships and trust.
- Institutional capital - local leadership, capacity and capability.
Physical capital (capital 1), and more specifically transport infrastructure, is identified as an important capital as it reduces distances between places and provides increased market access.
The key problems and challenges for the UK's transport sector
The paper outlines the challenges facing the UK's transport sector, including:
Disparity in transport infrastructure between cities: Transport infrastructure is most expansive and under the most strain in London and the South East. Despite this, nearly 30% of all public transport infrastructure spending is in London, as investment tends to flows in the areas where infrastructure is under greater strain, rather than less extensive.
Poor local transport infrastructure: The UK's core cities (Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, and Sheffield) rank lower in productivity than other second-tiered cities in other countries when (GVA) per worker is considered – part of which is due to poor local transport infrastructure. Centre for Cities for example finds that in Europe approximately 67% of people can get to their local city centre in 30 minutes using public transport, compared to 40% in Britain.
Potential solutions to these key problems and challenges
To combat the challenges outlined above, the paper suggests spreading opportunities and improving public services, especially in those places where they are weakest, as a high level objective for public policy. As a medium term solution, the Levelling Up strategy proposes that by 2030 local public connectivity across the country will be significantly closer to the standards of London, with improved services, simpler fares and integrated ticketing.
Priorities for UK transport infrastructure going forward
The paper introduces many new and exciting initiatives for transport infrastructure in various parts of the UK, focusing mainly on road transport (note that the Integrated Rail Plan, released in November 2021, focused on initiatives for the rail sector). These include:
- £3 billion of funding pledged for transforming buses with £50 million of that heading to Coventry to become the first all-electric bus city gaining nearly 300 new zero emission buses.
- Elsewhere in the West Midlands, there will be a new bus rapid transport system (a cross between a tram and a bus) linking Birmingham Airport, Solihull and Walsall to Birmingham City Centre.
- Rapid bus priority schemes and fare improvements in West Yorkshire and the West of England.
- Bus improvements and fare reductions in Stoke-on-Trent, Portsmouth, Luton, Derbyshire and Warrington.
- £360 million to be spent on London-style contactless ticketing across regional commuter locations.
- £35 billion for HS2, rail enhancements and other upgrades to improve rail journeys, improving connectivity between cities.
- The Interchange Station in Solihull is being backed by £50 million of conditional UK Government funding.
- Support for the development of 13 early stage proposals to restore lost rail connections (including in Great Manchester, East Yorkshire, Wales and Devon) with up to £50,000 for each project.
Alongside public transport upgrades and improvements, the Government is already investing more than £5 billion from 2020 - 2025 on roads in the UK.
The Levelling Up paper follows through on the Government's promise of devolving more power to Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) by increasing the mayors' control over Key Route Networks. This will ensure that the MCAs' most well-used travel routes are controlled by those that understand the importance of them best.
Concluding remarks and next steps
The publication of the Levelling Up paper marks the beginning of a new chapter in the efforts to reduce disparity, and spread opportunity, across the UK. The range of initiatives proposed to improve transport infrastructure in the UK can only be a good thing - for all parts of the country. However, it remains to be seen whether (a) the funding will be committed and policy will develop to deliver these schemes, and (b) improvements to the UK's transport infrastructure can be made quickly enough to make a real difference to the levelling up agenda. Current and past projects have shown that it can be difficult to make change at pace, with local politics, insufficient funding and regional community issues often hindering the ability for local government to drive through change.
We now look forward to the publication of the updated National Infrastructure Delivery Plan (the "NIDP") which sets out how the Government will support the delivery of national infrastructure projects and programmes. With the current version of the NIDP covering the five year period from 2016 to 2021, the publication of a new NIDP is imminent and should supplement and enhance the programme introduced in the Levelling Up paper. Watch this space!