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Devolution is a chance for more democratic infrastructure planning

Opening up infrastructure planning-7This post has been written by Amy Mount of Green Alliance and Andrew Wescott of the Institute of Civil Engineers. It first appeared on the ICE blog

In the run up to the general election, there was a clamour of calls for a more strategic national approach to infrastructure planning, in expert reports, workshops, and conference speeches. In this context, ‘strategic’ means long term and evidence based,  with measures to shape demand as well as the supply of big kit, and considering green alongside ‘grey’ infrastructure.

While there is still no national strategy, a recent expert roundtable hosted by the ICE and Green Alliance concluded that those who were part of this clamour should be looking to the next tier down for a more strategic approach. City and county devolution is gathering momentum, alongside the continuing devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales. The sub-national perspective possible at this scale enables a place-based focus that’s difficult to achieve at national level. It makes sense to people, whether Scots, Mancunian, or Cornish: they know the place, they travel across it regularly, and it‘s often a strong part of their identity. This trend offers the opportunity for more democratic infrastructure planning, and more accountable decisions.

Infrastructure cannot be depoliticised
The pre-election debate centred on depoliticising decision making for long term infrastructure projects. This ignored the fact that infrastructure policy, particularly concerning major, transformational projects, is political by nature. There should be political debate around projects which impact on the lives of multiple generations and the fabric of the British landscape. We should seek to understand how decisions made now will reverberate through the decades, and we should aim to mitigate their negative impacts.

Opening up decision making and embracing its political nature does not necessitate a longer process. It just means that people should be involved in strategic conversations before specific projects begin, as Green Alliance outlined in Opening up infrastructure planning. Simply put, if more people’s views are sought and considered, we’re more likely to end up with the infrastructure that we need and want. This includes agreeing on its purpose. What are we actually trying to achieve with a particular piece of infrastructure? And what purpose will it serve in 20, 30 or 50 years’ time?

Understanding why we need infrastructure enables us to generate options about the most appropriate and effective ways to meet that need. And these options make for richer discussions around how to achieve a thriving low carbon economy and a better quality of life.

Rethinking infrastructure
Striving for growth and well-being does not necessarily mean building more infrastructure. We should first assess whether we can use what we already have more efficiently. The UK has huge existing infrastructure assets, and we should be looking into how retrofit technology could make this more efficient and fit for purpose, before building more. And devolution and the expansion of urban areas are a great opportunity for more demand side interventions.

For example, as we expand our housing stock we could be benefiting more from district heating; as city centres grow, the use of public and active transport could be extended, incentivising shifts from one mode to another; and the internet of things could facilitate innovative ways of reducing energy and water use. The Scottish government is leading the way on such demand side interventions, with its recent decision to declare building energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority.

The devolution opportunity
Devolution is widely supported. Empowering local people with greater responsibilities is deemed as an inherently good thing. However, we need a transparent and timely discussion around what people want, followed by an evidence based assessment of the infrastructure options available to deliver it. Local decision makers have to be accountable to those they serve.

The opportunities provided by devolution could easily come to nothing if national and local politicians fail to communicate effectively. Again, it’s necessary to understand one another’s objectives. There needs to be open dialogue between national politicians and the new layers of decision makers, whether they are mayors, leaders of combined authorities or parliamentarians. This discussion is particularly important when it comes to Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects. These projects, which can benefit many but impact on a localised few, are often the ones that cause most controversy. Early engagement, offering a set of real alternatives to achieve an objective and local champions for these ideas is vital to their success.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, as each place will have its own strengths and limitations. And, to really maximise the benefit, we still need to understand how it all fits into a wider national strategy. But the process is very much underway: Manchester secured another wave of devolved responsibilities in July; in the same month, Cornwall became the first county to gain new powers in a deal that left open the potential for further devolution; and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, currently making its way through parliament, creates a framework for similar developments.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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