IPPR: ‘Transformational infrastructure for the North: why we need a Great North Plan

In August IPPR North continued with their pioneering advocacy of Northern regeneration – following on from On the wrong track: An analysis of the autumn statement announcements on transport infrastructure Dec 2011  and Still on the wrong track June 2013 reports about grossly disproportionate per capita transport investment between North and South; and their Northern Economic Futures Commission report Northern prosperity is national prosperity  Nov 2012 – when they published this proposal for a Great North Plan.

[There’s a linked piece in the Guardian here and also this article: London gets 24 times as much spent on infrastructure per resident than NE England. Coverage of the launch event is here and IPPR tweeted the responding editorials from the Yorkshire Post and Northern Echo.]

The report’s core analysis is this: “The way the government spends money is out of balance. Despite OECD research showing that money wisely invested in weaker economic regions can deliver higher rates of return through economic growth than investing in areas that need it less, London, with its dense infrastructure provision, is the overwhelming beneficiary of publicly leveraged investment. In part, this imbalance reflects the fact that current methods of infrastructure appraisal are skewed in favour of direct user benefits rather than their wider economic benefits. But another reason for such regional disparities lies in the location of large-scale transformational infrastructure projects, such as London’s programme of Crossrail, Thameslink and London Underground improvements.”

The report’s recommendations are copied below, and in process terms they are good.
But what should we make of chapter 5’s list of ‘Transformational ideas for the North of England’? Because of course there’s good (that is, sustainable) infrastructure and bad infrastructure, and IPPR-N had already demonstrated a lack of discrimination between the two when the Commission’s report got its recommendations about aviation and airports ‘round their neck’. These included a proposal that northern airports should be allowed to reduce their APD rate to the ‘Band A reduced rate’ level all flights for an initial period of five years, which would of course have the effect of increasing still further aviation’s soaring climate emissions. And for what benefit, since around 80% of regional airport passengers are outbound leisure? Their simplistic justification was that there is spare runway capacity in the North which could be used to ease pressure on congested London airports but of course, as the Airports Commission subsequently concluded, there is no possibility that SE passenger demand can be so relocated.

Unfortunately they’ve done it again with the new report, and once more it’s our society’s bizarre and quite uncritical fascination with aviation expansion that has lead them astray. So there are proposals for:

Durham Tees Valley Airport: An investment in additional hangar space for the airport, among other proposals including 400 new homes.
Potential merits: Could transform the fortunes of the airport and surrounding areas.
Potential issues: Projections by the Department for Transport (DfT) predict very limited growth in passenger volumes; the economic viability of the airport has been challenged by the recession.
Costs: Approximately £280 million

Soft Airport Infrastructure: Purchasing of slots for take-off and landing of aircraft for regional airports to access major international hubs, such as Heathrow.
Potential merits: Improved connectivity of regional airports.
Potential issues: Increased air traffic is environmentally damaging, especially air travel within the UK, where other modes of transport are available.
Costs: Costs vary widely – American Airlines paid around £20 million for a pair of take-off and landing slots.

But then much more damagingly

Airport City (Manchester): Expanding Manchester’s airport capacity to include a freight terminal and improve access.
Potential merits: DfT/BAA projections suggest air passenger demand for Manchester is projected to double by 2050, requiring a commensurate expansion in airport capacity.
Potential issues: Increased air traffic is environmentally damaging.
Costs: £400–£650 million

Why exactly would you wish to revive the fortunes of an insignificant, failing regional airport (which has collapsed from 550,000 to 150,000 passengers p.a in the last five years due to the lack of demand for its services), and when there is a much more viable airport (Newcastle) just 30 miles away? And why would you want to support discredited ‘predict and provide’ transport thinking for Manchester Airport when in the very next sentence you acknowledge the environmental damage this causes? (The environmental damage isn’t just limited to climate emissions; there are very large local impacts to Green Belt and by roadbuilding – see our separate story here).

In relation to roads proposals all they can come up with is the attempted resurrection of another ‘zombie’ road scheme:

A1 Dualling: Turning the A1 north of Newcastle and through Northumberland into a dual-carriageway.
Potential merits: Significantly improved connectivity between the North East and Scotland, with reduced congestion and delays on a heavily used major artery.
Potential issues: The Highways Agency has supported the project in principle but may require collaboration between the Scottish and Westminster governments to achieve best outcome – the current political climate makes this challenging.
Costs: Unknown

I think the lessons for IPPR North should be: Please assess your proposals for basic environmental sustainability and, if they can’t pass those tests, then junk them.

If longrun infrastructure isn’t sustainable, we don’t want it.

Report recommendations

1. Public and private stakeholders in the north of England should galvanise their efforts to develop and promote transformational infrastructure projects in the North, with a view to bringing them to a national audience

2. Northern leaders should work together to bring forward a long-term Northern Infrastructure Strategy, including a small number of key transformational infrastructure priorities. This strategy should build on the ‘One North’ plan for transport connectivity and Rail North body to galvanise collaboration in relation to rail franchising in the North.

3. An incoming government in 2015 should undertake a radical review of the National Infrastructure Pipeline in order to bring forward plans for a more balanced approach to infrastructure spending in the UK, with greater emphasis on transformational infrastructure projects in the north of England.

4. The current government must move more quickly and decisively to overhaul the existing transport appraisal processes in order to place greater emphasis on the wider economic benefits that might be derived through public investment in key infrastructure projects and to progress transport devolution to combined authorities and other transport bodies.