For decades, Britain has lagged behind the Continent in the quality of infrastructure, and building new homes. Nicholas Falk FRSA outlines some ways in which smarter growth could be achieved.
Despite, and perhaps because of, privatising utilities and transport undertakings, finance that should have gone into saving energy, water and waste, and reducing the cost of travel in the UK, has ended up inflating property prices or going abroad. British residents make many more journeys by car than in countries like German and Denmark, which are just as densely populated. Our new homes are smaller and more expensive to run and buy and we have been building them at a fraction of the rate of the Netherlands or Sweden. Meanwhile, young families have been priced out of the market.
Infrastructure may not have mattered when there was plenty of coal and oil to burn, and assets to sell. But now the UK has to live within its (and the planet’s) means, we have to become smarter. Despite all our good ideas, we are very poor at implementation. Someone always objects. Development and infrastructure are rarely joined up. Resources are dissipated in studies that come to nothing, whether for a wind farm in Bedfordshire, or the Leeds Supertram. We have lost the lead we once had in heavy engineering and development finance. The centre for financing energy is now Frankfurt not London, and we are over-dependent on French and German companies to run our utilities as well as build our cars and trains.
Instead of the proposed planning ‘free for all’, Britain needs planned urban extensions or infill schemes in locations that have the necessary infrastructure, developed in ways that create jobs, and built much faster. Even in growth spots identified under the previous government, implementation has been far too slow. For example North of Cambridge, where the Homes and Community Agency has acquired a former airfield, the new town of Northstowe has stalled, despite a location on a Guided Busway, which has cost over £180 million, and an agreed masterplan. Similarly on the Greenwich Peninsular, where a former gas works was decontaminated at huge public expense, and a station opened on the Jubilee Line, development has proceeded at a fifth of the pace of a similar site in Stockholm at Hammarby Sjostad.
Estimates of the costs of replacing worn out infrastructure, such as old power stations and over-crowded trains, exceed £500 billion. That gap will not be filled through a few prestige projects like a second High Speed Rail line or offshore arrays of wind turbines. Nor can we create the ‘good life’ through isolated experiments in self-sufficiency or carbon budgets. The government’s stated intention to shift control from the centre must be backed up with local development mechanisms that pay off for everyone, not just a few lucky property owners or bank bosses.
Neighbourhood planning is a waste of time if there is no mechanism for joining up suitable sites for development with high quality infrastructure, such as Combined Heat and Power, integrated transport, or academies. The most successful places use proactive municipal governments, joint venture partnerships, and long-term ‘patient’ finance to make things happen. Investment banks such as BNG in the Netherlands or the Caisse de Depots in France support local authorities in carrying out national policies, such as the French programme of ‘eco-towns’. As yet there is no equivalent in Britain.
The proposed Green Infrastructure Bank should be useful, but only if it can lever up its £2 billions of initial public capital, through financial ‘cocktails’ with other funding sources. The National Planning Policy Framework may help cut red tape, but only if major risks are taken out of large scale housing development. Some housing associations have used the bond market to good effect to raise sums of £100 million, repayable after 15 or 20 years. But bonds can only work where the land is put in as equity, and development finance is also available, for example through institutions investing in housing for rent or the supply of infrastructure, as on the Continent.
Public-private partnerships for new communities must take a 20-year perspective, way beyond any government. They need to sell ‘oven-ready’ serviced sites to house builders, not hang on waiting for values to rise. If Local Enterprise Partnerships were to identify the best strategic sites, communities could be reconnected with their common wealth, and generate quality jobs in the process. By joining up development and infrastructure, local authorities could secure ‘smarter growth’ that looks and works better, where possible mobilising under-used land, such as car parks or redundant hospitals. By issuing bonds they could tap funds that are looking for a safe haven. By working with a portfolio of sites to spread the risks and cover the initial set-up costs, insurance companies and pension funds could diversify their investments, which would be good for savers.
Perhaps the RSA Fellowship and its regional associations could help not just in promoting the idea of smarter growth, but also in putting the ideas into practice on sites that could demonstrate what is technically possible?
Dr Nicholas Falk, BA MBA, FRSA Hon FRIBA is an economist, urbanist and strategic planner who founded URBED (Urban and Economic Development) in 1976.