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Ralph Smyth: CPRE infrastructure lecture 2016

Ralph Smyth, Head of Infrastructure & Legal, Campaign to Protect Rural England- speaking at CPRE's NIC lecture on 6 December 2016 in response to Phil Graham, Chief Executive, National Infrastructure Commission.

Thanks for such stimulating speeches, it’s challenging enough when there’s one hard act to follow ... let alone three.

As an organisation that recognises the importance of both infrastructure and long-term planning, CPRE was really delighted when the Commission was set up last year.

We’ve sought to improve the nation’s infrastructure since the lofty days of the Roads Beautifying Association and early decisions about the National Grid. In fact while the Commission has just celebrated its first birthday...we celebrate our 90th tomorrow.

Now, before you worry that I’ll be speaking on lessons from the CPRE’s first 90 years, I can assure you I will keep it brief. Or I’ll be reprimanded by Shaun, our chief executive who’s very sorry to miss a CPRE lecture for the first time ever, but has been struck down by the flu.

CPRE’s three principles for better infrastructure

Shaun’s speech earlier this year to the Local Government Association conference set out a new vision for infrastructure

1. One that engages and really listens to local people and local authorities – after all, 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 better infrastructure is not all about big schemes...but needs better management not to mention smaller schemes

So why is CPRE proposing these three principles?

Well, with a network of branches in every county and over a quarter of parish councils as members, CPRE views public engagement as vital, or we’d be failing to reflect our roots. In fact we try to lead by example: just last week we published a great new toolkit to help communities chart their own way to low carbon energy.

As the champions for England’s countryside, we encourage better design and appropriate scale of development. Indeed we’re delighted by the progress made by the design panels we helped secure. They are seeking to ensure national infrastructure schemes like HS2 respond to local character of the different rural areas passed through.

And as people who are passionate about proper planning, we recognise the need for smaller schemes and better policies...not just big kit projects. For instance, we’ve just secured commitments to investigate integrating smart power into HS2, saving as much as £40m per year as well as environmental impacts. Last year our proposal for a national Cycling & Walking Investment Strategy made it into the Infrastructure Act 2015.

How has the Commission measured up?

So how has the Commission been measuring up in its early days on our three infrastructure principles? It’s certainly been very busy and has delivered a great range of reports already.

Regarding engaging with local people and local authorities, what mechanisms have been proposed by the Oxford Cambridge growth corridor interim study? When or how, for example, would local people be able to give - or withhold their consent - for being part of an English Silicon Valley? If the government is keen on votes for having elected mayors, shouldn’t a similar principle apply here? And how will locals engage with the proposed corridor wide strategic growth plan…will it remain an alphabet soup of devolution?

In terms of infrastructure improving the break places it passes by, what we’ve heard today from Phil is definitely a big step forward. So we welcome the commitment to design - but is it an afterthought to the main objectives? Following from what Martin said, design as mitigation rather than as aspiration. Would the Oxford-Cambridge expressway become a ‘concrete corridor’ of car centric housing through middle England, however much effort is put into detailed design of some of the buildings?

And on the third principle, that small-scale infrastructure can be great too. Well the Commission’s Smart Power study showed a lot of promise here, considering smaller scale alternatives to big power stations, such as energy storage. Nonetheless its approach to transport remains very much focused on big projects, even though thepotential for tech to revolutionise use of our existing transport networks is as great as our energy networks.

Besides a ‘High Speed 3’ railway, its northern study, High Speed North, proposes making the region’s biggest roads even bigger. Similarly its Oxford-Cambridge corridor study focuses on a big rail and road route, missing opportunities for investing in rapid transit and cycle networks serving the intermediate towns.

The year ahead

So in conclusion, what could the Commission do differently in its second year?

Looking to 2050 will require big decisions, and over a time period far longer than we are used to think about. The public showed earlier this year it doesn’t appreciate being disregarded. Transparency on issues like the balance in investment and prosperity between different regions will be key. The lack of larger than local geographical units could make this even harder: London’s Infrastructure 2050 report was not a model of good engagement, even though Greater London is a long established and clearly understood geographical unit.

So engaging the public in the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) will be as challenging as it will be essential. The Commission’s proposal to use deliberative polling is very positive – but it needs to think how people might feel they have been heard too.

The Commission has been given explicit fiscal and economic remits. While it’s a huge step forward for improved quality of life to have been made one of the Commission’s aims, for this to be properly entrenched, an explicit environmental remit is needed. That means more than just ‘design as mitigation’ but securing ambitious objectives in NIA & individual studies. Objectives such as minimising landtake, making places and landscapes more beautiful, tackling noise blight and delivering accessible greenspace for all. Clearly there will be a key role for Green Belt in all of this.

Yes an environmental remit is going to be harder and more complex to set than measuring Gross Value Added or cost to the taxpayer. But the cost of failing to give equal weight to quality of life is just too big to ignore.

It’s great to hear Phil emphasise the importance of good infrastructure policies as well as good projects. But there still feels like there’s a gap. Big packages of smaller infrastructure schemes can be as game changing as a few big schemes: we need them both. Funding and delivery of these is at least as difficult as big schemes, not least when they cut across local authority boundaries.

We hope in the coming year, the Commission can start highlighting packages of smaller schemes as solutions in its studies. Just as critical will be proposing new ways to help deliver them. Whether by joining up different infrastructure sectors or helping cash strapped local authorities develop new delivery models.

In conclusion, our Prime Minister has called for an economy that works for everyone. Surely it’s time to ask for infrastructure that works for everyone? CPRE’s three principles set out a path to help make this happen.

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