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Transport infrastructure critical to growth in regions, say experts

Words: Laura Edgar
Paddington station

Coordinated transport and spatial planning is essential to secure the economic health of our cities and regions.

Major transport infrastructure schemes alone will not stimulate economic growth, unless they are linked to wider regional development schemes – and that takes strong leadership.

These were the main conclusions of an afternoon of presentations and discussion at ‘Transport and Spatial Planning’, jointly organised by the RTPI and the Transport Planning Society on Monday (November 23).

Chairing the event, urban and regional planning consultant Alan Wenban-Smith noted a productivity gap of around £100 billion a year between European and British cities.

“A large part of this is down to us failing to get our act together on the transport and land use agenda,” he said. “We have failed to get to grips with the integration of the two.”

High speed rail, regional devolution and the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ were recurrent themes throughout the event.  Graham Pendlebury, director of local transport at the Department for Transport, said ministers – particularly the chancellor – were “deadly serious” about regional devolution.

The Department’s major strategic priority was to boost economic growth around the nation alongside a “safe, sustainable and secure” transport system. Major infrastructure schemes were in the pipeline and HS2 in particular was set to consume a larger share of the Department’s budget in coming years.

Learning from elsewhere

But, said John Worthington of the Independent Transport Commission and past director at the Academy of Urbanism, we need to understand the potential “spatial effects” of high speed rail on England before proceeding.

Despite the stress on regional growth and economic competitiveness, the current situation was that “the regions are not competing with London. They are supporting London and in turn supported by London”.

We need to learn from the past, and from the experiences of cities and regions elsewhere if we are to get transport and spatial planning working in tandem to stimulate regional growth and competitiveness. “Governance and leadership is critical,” he stressed.

"Transport is the generator"

Recurring themes he had picked up from visits overseas were accessibility and connectivity, identity of place and working together. In Lille, for example, good leadership and strong systems of governance had been critical to the city region’s revival. They were helped by the fact that the city mayor was a former president, and so he understood how politics worked at the highest levels.

In Bordeaux, he noted, regeneration had occurred around new transport networks. “Trams to the important and touristy places came first.” These were then extended as the city was developed around corridors of movement. “Transport is the generator,” he said.

Ian Wray, visiting professor in planning and Heseltine Institute Fellow at Liverpool University argued that the success of the Northern Powerhouse would likewise be contingent on coherent and continuous leadership structures.

Referring to the transport bodies for the north, he noted that Sir Richard Leese – the leader of Manchester’s combined authority – chaired each of One North, Rail North and Transport for the North.

Repeating the past?

Steve Melia , transport and planning lecturer at the University of the West of England and author of 'Urban transport without the hot air' reminded delegates that we had been here before, in 2000. He said the current government was now repeating policies they had “thrown out” when they came to power in 2010.

"I doubt whether anyone bothered to ask if what Prescott did was working"

“When John Prescott was in government, this was the only time there was a relationship between transport and spatial planning,” he said, adding that: “There was a 60 per cent target of brownfield land [development] and this was exceeded every year it was in operation. There was minimum density guidance, national minimum parking standards.”

He continued: “I doubt whether anyone bothered to ask if what Prescott did was working. It was not analysed before being thrown out.”

The consequence was a rise in traffic, because “people drive less in denser areas”. If we are to create lively cities and regions, we need greater density of housing and that means focusing on brownfield land within urban areas.

Martin Tugwell, programme director of England's Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance, cautioned that we should “beware of people who tell you to change to a particular model because that's perfect”.

He also put the case for patience in the urgent debates around infrastructure and housing. “Just because there was a recession, or if there is again, does not mean the business plan needs to change,” he said. “It means the housing that would be delivered as part of the infrastructure might happen in 25 years rather than 20.”