Infrastructure investment may be the key to economic recovery, but projects need to start now - and that means focusing on less showy but ‘oven ready’ local schemes

Richard McCarthy

This might sound odd, but when seeking inspiration for my next opinion piece I came up with infrastructure. It is not exactly revolutionary or new, but bear with me.

As with “partnership” before it, the word “infrastructure” is losing its impact and currency. We all know more infrastructure investment is desperately important and necessary. You can even say it at dinner parties and in the pub and people nod their heads in agreement. But they also say, “Isn’t something being done about this?”, possibly followed by, “Haven’t we been promised loan guarantees?” and “What about Crossrail?”

Well yes, of course this is all true. And yet we need to do more, and do more now, in order to reap the economic benefits that come from their development and subsequent completion. We also need to be honest and open about timescales for infrastructure projects - for decisions, strategy development, preparation and planning, and then, at last, for construction. Whatever your views about a third runway at Heathrow, this won’t be built in anything like the immediate future - no matter what further changes are made to the planning system! Everybody knows this. However, it is all too easy to let delivery timescales become blurred in the intensive heat of debate and announcement on national-scale infrastructure.

It should go without saying that we need a long-term plan with clear and robust implementation strategies (and timescales). The National Infrastructure Plan needs to feel like an implementation strategy rather than a manifesto or wish list. It is essential for our future economic prosperity and security, and yet it still does not exist.

But, this is not enough. We need to get more excited and ambitious about investment in local and sub-regional infrastructure. For example, investing in the existing road network to facilitate the movement of people and goods within our towns and cities, and to improve their access to the national network, can deliver impressive results. Construction can be planned and implemented over much shorter timescales, although strong local leadership is also critical for success, and the real economic benefits of this investment can be realised at a much earlier date.

Local infrastructure improvements demand much greater political attention and priority. They may not be as sexy as the “grands projets” or offer the same political and personal legacy, but in the current economic environment they look pretty attractive to me. For example, the urgent need for investment in the A14 extends beyond the route into Felixstowe.

I have no doubt, more needs to be done to free up, bring forward and create new, easily accessible funding streams to “light the torch” under local infrastructure construction and to kickstart a new long-term period of infrastructure investment.

In many areas projects will be (or should be) in a position to be committed fairly rapidly. Indeed, this should be a key criterion for any early funding initiative or programme. Local authorities and the Local Government Association should also be more vocal about the importance of local infrastructure investment, and they should create a pressure point by ensuring that they have priority schemes that are “oven ready” for delivery. The Highways Agency should also be encouraged and supported to have in place a number of relatively modest (in investment terms) priority sub-regional schemes that can be committed at short notice. It is essential that the time lags between announcements and activity on the ground is shortened, particularly when they currently appear to be getting longer.

In the same vein, I wonder about the extent to which regulators have been instructed to create the right incentives and pressures to bring forward private sector investment by the utility companies. It may not be their prime purpose but it should form part of their role, particularly in the current economic environment.

The message and challenge is clear. Action needs to be taken now to bring a new focus and determination to local infrastructure provision. New investment will bring real and rapid benefits - but schemes need to be ready, and funding mechanisms need to straightforward and accessible.

Richard McCarthy is an executive director of Capita Symonds and former director general of neighbourhoods at the communities department.