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The big build

The big build Image credit: Dun.can / FLICKR

Roll up, roll up, the infrastructure circus has come to town. But were you invited?

Situated in the heart of London’s Docklands, adjacent to City Airport and a short distance from the Royal Docks, London’s ExCel Centre seemed like an appropriate venue for the 2017 National Infrastructure Forum.

Surrounded as it is by infrastructure, most of which has all been built in the past 30 years, the venue has become well known as a major piece of kit in its own right, as London’s primary exhibition space.

As I made my way through the throngs of people, I pondered some of the key issues for CPRE on infrastructure. Who or what is the driving force behind the £500bn infrastructure pipeline? How can we persuade the private sector to fund the right infrastructure in the right places? What difference has devolution and Metro-Mayors made to the infrastructure debate? Which infrastructure would make the biggest positive difference to rural England - and what infrastructure would scar it irreparably? Exhibitors’ stalls lined the room with representatives from civil engineers to construction firms, lawyers to the Land Registry. It seemed that everybody with an interest in infrastructure was there.

Delegates unable to enter an overflowing room listened attentively on headphones whilst a businessman gave a breathless performance on a new underground railway to link Manchester and Leeds with 300mph Maglev trains. Energy experts excitedly hailed the digital revolution, demonstrating how a few taps on an iPhone activated their central heating 90 miles away, in case you’d missed their ads. In another corner, a man wandered nervously around a stand, his eyes covered with a virtual reality visor while he explored some alternate reality. A nearby speaker’s voice was drowned out as another plane came in to land at City Airport next door.

But there was somebody missing from this circus. In fact, there were many people missing. Where were the passenger transport groups outlining their infrastructure needs? Where were the energy consumer groups? How about the water customers in whose name a new reservoir was being proposed? Where were the apprentices, whose skills training was widely discussed?

For too many people, infrastructure has become something that is done to them and often in their name. Infrastructure is personified by the suited man arriving from London with rolls of plans tucked under his arm. 'I have a plan' he says, 'and it’s going to transform your community'. Sometimes it is a reservoir or a quarry, a new motorway or a shale gas installation. 'But I’m not sure if we want it', the community says. 'But you’re going to love it' the man says, 'it will mean jobs and investment and x and y'. 'Still not sure', says the community. 'Well tough, you’re getting it whether you like it or not', the man from London says. 'Experts' then ponder why public opposition to major projects can be so fierce.

Yet rural England would benefit hugely from new local bus and rail infrastructure. We want to see old branch lines re-opened and bus services made more frequent. We want environmental infrastructure like green walls and bridges and sustainable drainage systems. We want solar on rooftops that does not spoil the beauty of market towns. We want broadband and mobile phone connectivity that does not sacrifice our historic landscape. This is the infrastructure the countryside is crying out for. But nobody seems to be listening.

The concept of a democratic deficit in the planning system is one that will be familiar to many. The debate around infrastructure is perhaps one of the best examples of it. It’s a discussion driven by unaccountable LEPs, big utility firms and those looking for quick return on their investment, irrespective of the social and environmental consequences.

Next year, the National Infrastructure Commission will be publishing its Infrastructure Assessment, advising the Government on the major projects they recommend be approved for the next 30 years. It will be one of the most significant infrastructure documents to be published in recent years.

As champions of the countryside, CPRE will be following the Commission’s work closely in the coming months and years. We’ll be engaging across the sector with all those who share our ambition for an infrastructure revolution that delivers for the countryside.

As Brexit gets under way, and politicians of all parties scramble for infrastructure solutions to ready the economy, it is likely the infrastructure circus will be coming soon to a town near you. Make sure you get your tickets now, because there are few others there who will speak up on your behalf.

Daniel Carey-Dawes is Senior Infrastructure Campaigner at The Campaign to Protect Rural England. He tweets at @DanCareyDawes

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26 June 2017

For too many people, infrastructure has become something that is done to them and often in their name.




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