I am the leader of Arup’s Infrastructure...
Since the global financial crisis in 2007, the UK’s political discourse has been greatly concerned about rebalancing the economy and moving away from a London-centric worldview with an economy overly weighted on financial services. Yet the reality suggests the narrative has some way to go before the aspiration is matched on the ground.
One study recently summed up the difficulties facing politicians and economists trying to move the dial when it noted that more cranes have been erected in London in the past three years than everywhere else in the country put together. Those cranes highlight the huge gap between London and the rest of Britain as the capital now appears to have its own economic gravity set apart from the rest of the UK.
While this gap has been highlighted by the financial crisis, a map of the country’s infrastructure reveals that this is not a recent phenomenon. The country’s motorway and rail systems offer similar indications, with routes emanating from London along radial paths that make it easier to get to and from London than between most anywhere else.
And as we enter the next big revolution in rail electrification, it is interesting to see that these trends look likely to persist – in the short term at least. For example, current commitments show three more mainlines will be electrified. Two of these are London radial routes – from London to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea; and from London to Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield. The exception is a new electrification scheme between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York.
Make no mistake, infrastructure schemes such as these represent terrific investments in jobs, growth and the future competitiveness of the country. But they continue to centralise the rail network on London. Meanwhile, investments such as Crossrail, and HS2 to a lesser extent, highlight this continuing trend.
Meanwhile, many large, regional cities – even those situated relatively close together – remain stuck with slow, infrequent and uncomfortable links often based on inefficient diesel services. To take a couple of examples, Sheffield (9th largest UK city) will not be connected by electrified rail to Manchester (3rd largest) or Leeds (4th largest), despite being only 53km and 47km apart respectively.
In economic terms, there are obvious reasons for investing within London’s gravitational pull, especially if the focus is on a pure cost-benefit basis. Indeed, on narrow economic terms London and the southeast will tend to show higher returns than many other areas for a wide variety of schemes.
If the country is to ‘rebalance’, however, then Lord Heseltine’s ideas about promoting localism and devolving greater regional powers from the centre have to be translated from the political agenda to the real world.
In fairness, there is some movement in this direction. But we have yet to see the type of transformation needed to promote the kind of local and regional planning for higher levels of economic interaction and activity between major cities and regions.
In many cases, it need not be at huge investment cost. For instance, electrifying four extra relatively short lines would transform the connectivity of nine of England’s largest UK regional cities: from Bristol to Birmingham; from Birmingham to Derby (and Sheffield / Nottingham); from Sheffield to Manchester (over the hilly Pennines where rail traction would make an excellent improvement); and from Sheffield to Leeds.
Just as importantly, fostering greater regional collaboration would allow cities and regions to assert a greater financial independence from London and to grow and develop in their own right.
London’s position as a true ‘world city’ is a great strategic asset for the UK overall, so we shouldn’t be overly critical of the investment it attracts. It is well deserved.
Looking at the infrastructure map, though, it is clear that there is tremendous scope to do better elsewhere and boost the resilience of the UK economy as a whole in the process.