Great infrastructure, led by design, can shape a town or city and transform the lives of communities but it takes vision, collaboration and leadership

Sadie morgan bw 2017

In July the National Infrastructure Committee (NIC) published the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), which identified and made recommendations for meeting the UK’s infrastructure needs. It suggests how the country can get the most out of the infrastructure we have and make the right choices for new infrastructure in order to ensure continued prosperity, competitiveness and wellbeing in the face of challenges such as climate change and population growth. 

Cities are a key focus of the NIC assessment and, we believe, crucial to the UK’s success. More than half the UK population live or work in cities, and with that proportion continuing to grow, pressure on infrastructure and local resources will only increase. This is why the NIC recommends cities should have devolved powers and £43bn funding on top of current spending between now and 2040, to solve the riddle of integrating effective transport, employment and housing.

The challenges of local transport, job creation and new homes should not be looked at in isolation. To create liveable communities our focus has to be wider

Although our recommendations are targeted at the 45 largest cities in England, they also include a diverse group of medium-sized and small cities and are relevant to both city leaders and county councils alike. 

Read: Housing density - does it stack up?

All the UK’s cities need bigger, longer-term devolved budgets and the opportunity to bid for major projects. When it comes to knowing what is needed to deal with local and regional challenges, it is local communities that know best, not central government.

The challenges of local transport, job creation and new homes should not be looked at in isolation. To create liveable communities our focus has to be wider. Creating a low carbon economy is essential to address climate change and the growing threat from air pollution. Digital connectivity, increasingly crucial, is still out of reach for many, with only 4% of households able to access full fibre broadband. We must plan for all these together to deliver sustainable communities where people want to live and work. 

So how do we achieve this? Whether it’s transport, housing, digital connectivity or utilities for housing, county and unitary councils have a vital enabling role to play to ensure infrastructure is planned and delivered effectively.

Leaders at all levels and local stakeholders need to be champions of well-designed infrastructure and communities

Councils face multiple barriers: the siloed planning and delivery of utilities to supply new developments; the lack of regulatory incentive for utility companies to increase capacity ahead of new developments; and poor communication between the diverse organisations involved in planning, design and delivery of utilities. All this is coupled with a lack of any mechanisms to improve co-ordination between housing and infrastructure for smaller-scale developments. I’m surprised anything gets done.

While the challenges are numerous, we must remember that building thriving communities is not simply about access to funds, or resolving issues with governance and co-ordination between different levels of local government and infrastructure providers. Infrastructure is more than just nuts and bolts. Leaders at all levels and local stakeholders need to be champions of well-designed infrastructure and communities. Good design is linked to a wider set of positive social, economic and environmental outcomes, including healthy lifestyles, mental health, environmental sustainability and enhanced financial and economic value. 

Good design is the surest way I know to get the best value out of any new investment going into communities and new housing developments, and deliver the best outcomes for residents. Embedding it early in the process can, in the long term, save money that can be reinvested in those communities. It means thinking about how great infrastructure can truly shape a town, a city – or even a whole county – in a way that makes people proud to live and work there.

But none of this is achievable unless councils look beyond their borders and work together by solving the puzzle of increasing the supply of homes, opening up employment opportunities and improving transport links. That was a central tenet of our report on the Cambridge to Oxford Growth Arc, to which the government has just published its official response. It welcomed initiatives to support the arc, such as the appointment of a ministerial champion and, crucially, allowing local authorities to pool section 106 contribution from developers. 

But these measures are insufficient to allow these councils and their developer partners to deliver the scale of new housing and the integrated infrastructure needed to ensure new homes become liveable, desirable communities. Clear-sighted leadership from government and councils is needed to deliver this transformation.

One motivation behind setting up the NIC was to address weaknesses in the decision-making process around infrastructure. The NIA strategy enables better decisions to be made in order to support sustainable economic growth across all regions, improved competitiveness and higher quality of life. But we need the vision, leadership and collaboration of councils and central government to make it happen.

Sadie Morgan is a co-founding director of dRMM Architects. She is also the HS2 independent design panel chair, sits on the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission and is a mayor’s design advocate for the Greater London Authority