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CPRE chief executive addresses LGA conference on infrastructure

Infrastructure can make or break places Infrastructure can make or break places Photomontage by HS2 Ltd, reused under the Open Government Licence.


An edited version of Shaun Spiers' speech to the Local Government Association conference on 6 July 2016:

"CPRE celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and throughout our history we have engaged actively with major infrastructure projects. The years since 1926 have seen the growth of aviation, the development of motorways, the spread of electricity to all parts of the country, and much else.

CPRE has not been saying ‘no’ throughout these years. In the words of our founder, Sir Patrick Abercombie, our aim has been to “achieve a balance between existing features – natural and historic – and new growth”. CPRE’s first President, Lord Crawford, a former Minister of Transport, said: “We have got to have new roads and bridges, new suburbs, new villages and perhaps new towns. Our desire is that they shall be comely, and shall conform to modern requirements without injuring the ancient beauty of the land.” And our first statement of aims and objects declared: “It is part of [CPRE’s] policy to promote suitable and harmonious development.” 

What are the prospects now for “suitable and harmonious development”? And how easy will it be to get consent for the new infrastructure the nation needs? CPRE is calling for a new approach to infrastructure planning, one where national and local aspirations go hand in hand.

  1. One that engages and really listens to local people and local authorities – nothing is more alienating than a consultation where the decision has already been made
  2. One where national infrastructure helps make rather than break places it passes by, and
  3. One which recognises that infrastructure is not all about big schemes

The National Infrastructure Commission offers a great opportunity to help deliver our vision. Already we have had good dialogue. We welcome the Government’s decision in May to include quality of life within the Commission’s scope. There still needs to be a substantial shift in emphasis, however, particularly on full engagement. And that’s the area I’ll focus on first.

1 Engaging with people

Whoever you’re speaking with about planning and barriers to infrastructure, the same refrain is repeated. The problem is public mistrust. And the problem is getting worse. It is not enough to draw on experts to establish the facts. We saw in the referendum campaign how facts were disputed and expertise discounted. In that campaign, the Treasury failed to persuade the British people that leaving the European Union would be a serious economic mistake. That was partly because the economic consequences of Brexit seemed diffuse while the perceived consequences of membership – a lack of school places, for instance, or poor housing conditions – were immediate.

So it is with infrastructure. The benefits for the nation may seem clear, but the nation is an abstraction. The dis-benefits for those living near the infrastructure tend to be clear and immediate. So the National Infrastructure Commission has an uphill task, however well something similar works in Singapore. With experts out of favour, there needs to be another piece in the jigsaw. I am not saying experts and evidence do not have a role. But we need to build consensus to build infrastructure. And for that we need a new way of doing things.

Rather than the Far East we should look closer to home – to France. The French have developed one of the finest processes for public debate on infrastructure projects. First developed in the 1980s after public outrage over a high speed railway proposed through vineyards, they have continuously improved it. Here, we are still using Victorian procedures to give consent to 21st century railways. Over two dozen consultations on HS2 and the battles are still running. France’s Public Debate Commission has representatives from user groups, the courts, industry, environmental NGOs, courts and local politicians, not least those from rural areas.

Crucially this commission makes suggestions rather than decisions. And of the dozens projects it has considered, a third have been fundamentally changed. In some cases, such as the planned route of Charles De Gaulle Express air rail link, the objectors’ proposal became what was approved. Scheme promoters welcome its feedback, as it means they get things right early on. We believe a similar Commission should be set up here through the Bill. It could carry out debates on the top three most controversial issues identified in the 2017 consultation on the National Infrastructure Assessment vision, allowing the NIC to focus on what it does best, building the evidence base. It could also streamline and supercharge pre-application consultation on Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects, taking responsibility for this from developers.

Putting all your infrastructure eggs in an expert basket is not sensible post Brexit. The NIC has made an impressive start and may yet establish its independence from the Treasury in the way that other bodies such as the Climate Change Committee and the Monetary Policy Committee have. But the Committee’s Chair is appointed by the Chancellor and its Chief Executive by the Treasury. The outgoing Chancellor – for all his admirable qualities, and his commitment to improving the nation’s infrastructure – has had a tin ear when it comes to hearing concerns about how and where stuff is built. He has a disdainful view of the planning system, regarding it merely as a barrier to getting things done, rather than the means by which we can build well and make better places.

And this worldview is not unique to this Chancellor. It is the Treasury View. J.M. Keynes identified it in 1939 when, in an essay for CPRE, he railed against the “sub-human denizens of the Treasury… nourished on dry husks”. I could never use such disrespectful language. But consent is vital, and something akin to the French Public Debate Commission would help achieve it, complementing the expertise of the National Infrastructure Commission.

2 Making not breaking places

Although we can hark back to Victorian stations and signature bridges, much of our ordinary infrastructure is frankly awful: pylons running across some of our finest landscapes; cut and paste concrete viaducts; ugly, noisy, light polluting roads. For far too long it has been acceptable simply to consider ‘minimising harm’ to the environment. Mitigation has been the name of the game. With so much being invested - rightly - in updating our infrastructure, we need to do better. What we build today will say so much about us tomorrow. And for many years to come.

So we need to take care how we build. We should aspire, in Abercrombie’s words, to create ‘new forms of beauty’. Poor decisions can ruin places. But good design need not cost more, even leaving aside the economic value of beautiful places, and the cost of ugly places which no one wants to look at, still less live near. Research published earlier this year by RICS shows that better placemaking can command a premium of as much as 50% on the value of houses.

How should the route strategies that Highways England is preparing take account of opportunities to make better places. The removal of the A14 viaduct in Huntingdon or the tunnelling of the A3 under the Devil’s Punchbowl are well known. But there are other, smaller potential opportunities, not least in rural areas. This debate should not simply be about how infrastructure looks, but about how it can fundamentally change perceptions of places. 

Other countries are far more ambitious than we are. The city of Hamburg is grassing over the autobahn that passes through it. This is not just to reduce air and noise pollution but to create new space for houses and allotments.  In response to the Government’s roads reform agenda, CPRE made the case for a ‘roads retrofit’We are pleased that the Road Investment Strategy includes a £500 million Environment Fund to help deliver this. We hope that Highways England will shortly announce plans to deliver green bridges over its network, to restore landscapes and connectivity for wildlife and communities. The Netherlands has over 60; we only have half a dozen.

Architects firm LDA Design have given the example of a Swansea tidal lagoon. By adding landscaping and networks of cycle paths, it could transform run-down areas of the city, on top of generating power. In the Victorian era, London’s Embankment addressed flooding, sewage, the tube and road travel. Achieving more than one thing from an infrastructure project makes even more sense now, in our densely country. Too often projects have narrow objectives set early on. The best megaprojects ‘flex’ through their development.

3 Fair split between local and national

There will always be competing tensions between investing in large and small scale infrastructure. But once we start thinking about infrastructure as networks - rather than discrete, individual schemes - the importance of the local becomes clear. When it comes to rolling out broadband, leaving out the last few miles is a false economy. There is little benefit in having a superfast fibre cable to your town if you cannot get it in your home. 

Likewise with energy, we will need to improve the local distribution of energy as we get more decentralised, ‘smart’ power. The emphasis should be on small scale local improvements. In fact investing at the local level can reduce or remove the need for infrastructure in the first place. Improving energy efficiency is at least as important as building power stations.

On transport, CPRE has been highlighting the gulf in investment between strategic roads and local transport. Even if you could build your way out of congestion - and the evidence is pretty clear that you can’t - we will never have enough money to build bigger local roads to feed into bigger national ones. And the impact on places would be devastating. The proposal for a National Road Fund, announced last year by the Chancellor, has been dropped from the forthcoming Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. It would have given all Vehicle Excise Duty to Highways England, who run just 2% of our roads. Drivers who rarely venture out onto the motorway but face a bumpy ride on potholed local roads will be hoping the idea has been dropped for good.

There is a need for adequate funding of the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy. While London has over £10 a head, rural areas are getting less than £1.40 on cycling and walking. Of course cycling never mind walking is not an option for longer journeys. But Department for Transport research shows that congestion on long distance routes is usually where these roads also have to cater for short distance traffic around towns. This investment is sorely needed to give people travel choices.

Our railways keep on getting busier. That’s a great thing. But in some places, without more network capacity, hard choices are being made. Better services between cities or protecting stops at rural stations? Value for Money calculations tend to prioritise incremental improvements for those travelling between cities over a decent service for those living in between. But the impact on leaving country towns with a just a skeleton service can be devastating to their continued viability.

We should not forget the benefits of construction either, such as for local business and skills. The Government gives the examples of Crossrail and the Olympics as infrastructure projects that have driven supply chain investment and skills, whether for large companies or Small and Medium Enterprises. We all remember the enchanting scenes of farmyard animals running riot round the green and pleasant land at the Olympics opening ceremony. But both of these projects are predominantly urban projects. If interurban projects like HS2 are to deliver benefits to the supply chains in areas they pass through, a different approach will be needed. CPRE welcomed the £30million HS2 Environment and Business Funds, which we had been calling for since 2011. It is a start, a small start. More needs to be done through procurement and promotion to help smaller rural businesses benefit, such as from landscaping and environmental mitigation works.

In all these examples, change is happening quickly. There are real risks that some people and some areas will not share the benefits. We need better evidence about network effects for new forms of infrastructure and better debates about how the costs and benefits should be distributed across society.

We need and better informed debates about how the costs and benefits from infrastructure investment and management should be distributed across society. Key to this is recognising that financial formulae cannot tell the whole story.


Today I have set out CPRE’s approach to infrastructure – let’s call it a vision. A vision that engages all sections of society in decision-making. Those who would benefit directly from new infrastructure as well those who it would simply pass through. We need what could be called ‘Place Responsive Infrastructure’. We are not a country with vast areas of emptiness, but one that is densely populated country. And finally, we need a call for a new balance between investment in local and national needs, and proper consideration of when new infrastructure might not be the right option.

I hope we can get this right. Buildings can enhance the landscape. Few lovers of the countryside would now wish unbuilt the great Victorian viaducts, country houses, dry stone walls or lovely villages. But where we have to build, we should try hard, in the words of John Buchan, launching CPRE Oxfordshire in 1931, to “replace old beauty with new beauty and not with new ugliness”. And if we can do that, we will find it much easier to get public agreement to development.  

It is part of CPRE’s policy to promote suitable and harmonious development.

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