How the UK’s economic recovery depends on transport infrastructure investment in regions beyond London, the South East

Ed Cox, Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research North writes on how our economic recovery depends on investment in regions outside the Greater South East, on the political and technical reasons for these imbalances, and on how the government must ensure that spending generates growth across the nation.  

IPPR North Blackpool

The IPPR is the leading progressive think-tank behind a report which recently revealed how 84 per cent of George Osborne’s £5bn infrastructure programme would be spent in the South against just 6 per cent in the North. “Without a rebalanced economy we will never have sustainable public finances or a prosperous economy.” George Osborne’s words echo an oft-repeated government ambition: to rebalance the economy, from overreliance on one preeminent sector (finance) and from one dominant region (the Greater South East.) This is a laudable aim – without both, the British economy will never earn its living in a hyper-competitive world marketplace. For a prosperous future, all sectors and regions of the UK must be firing on all cylinders.

One of the key drivers for economic growth is infrastructure. In the Autumn, the Chancellor announced  £30 billion of spending in a new National Infrastructure Plan; including an immediate increase of £5 billion over the next five years taken from under spend elsewhere and with plans for a further £5 billion in the following five years.

IPPR North East Metro

A recent IPPR report calculated that transport spending equated to £5 per head in the North-East compared to £2,731 per head in the South-East

As well as driving economic growth, the Chancellor’s infrastructure announcements were intended to shape the nature of economic growth and ‘promote growth across regions and nations.’ IPPR North has analysed the data detailing the projects to be brought forward as part of the national infrastructure pipeline. Behind the rhetoric, our analysis reveals that there is precious little in the way of ‘rebalancing’ of government investment.

  • Eleven of the twenty largest infrastructure projects benefit London and the South East. Five of the top twenty benefit the North of England.
  • On transport, if London and the South East are considered together they account for 84 per cent of planned spending as compared to just 6 per cent in the North of England (including just 0.04 per cent in the North East).
  • This equates to £2,731 per head for Londoners, more than for all of the other regions combined, compared to £201 per head in Yorkshire and the Humber, £134 per head in the North West and just £5 per head in the North East.
  • For each £1,000 of gross value added (GVA) generated in 2009, £81 is being spent on transport projects in London, £38 in the South East, £12 in Yorkshire, £8 in the North West and less than 50p in the North East.
  • Eighteen major transport projects have already started in London and the South East, compared to one in the North West, three in Yorkshire and the Humber and none in the North East, meaning any short-term boost to the economy is likely to be concentrated in the South East.
  • None of the top twenty regional projects will benefit the North East, East Midlands or South West.

It is desperately important that we invest in regions beyond the Greater South East. OECD analysis on region economic development shows that so-called ‘lagging regions’-all three regions of the North- play a critical role in enhancing national economic growth. In the UK, lagging regions contributed 57 per cent of net aggregate growth between 1995 and 2007. The OECD identifies two key areas for driving growth in lagging regions: increasing the skill level of the population and investing in infrastructure. So, while the government’s focus on infrastructure spending is important, a greater proportion of its investment needs to be channelled to lagging regions for the UK economy to excel.

IPPR North Crossrail David Cameron

The £16bn Crossrail project is one of the biggest infrastructure investments in London

“Governments of both colours have directed huge resources into London and the South East for political gain”

IPPR North believes that there are both political and technical reasons for these imbalances. Governments of both colours have directed huge resources into London and the South East for political gain. But HM Treasury’s Green Book – the manual by which investment decisions are appraised – and the accompanying New Approach to Appraisal (NATA) for transport projects are also culpable, as they are heavily in favour of those areas with the highest population density. As a result, projects in London and the South East always compare favourably in cost-benefit comparisons with other places. As London’s transport infrastructure and economy improves, so does its population density. As a result, the process becomes self-fulfilling to the point where it is difficult to see when London’s congestion effects will finally be identified as a disbenefit rather than a good reason to invest yet more. Put crudely, it is our contention that London and the South East are locked into a dependency on public sector spending on infrastructure which masks the true costs of doing business in the capital and holds back growth opportunities for other cities in their hinterlands. All of this locks all regions into a vicious cycle which perpetuates the status quo: of economic underperformance for the national economy and all being worse off as a result.

Thankfully, all is not entirely lost. Many of the projects set out in the National Infrastructure Plan rely on funding which will come within the next spending review period. While there is benefit in having a medium to long term plan for infrastructure spending, there is clearly a further opportunity for the existing plan to be reconfigured and for a more genuine rebalancing to take place.

IPPR North Northern Rail

Pacer units built between 1984-1987 and sharing many aspects of their construction with a bus are used across the entire rail network in the North

For this reason IPPR North is advocating the following measures:

  • Ahead of the 2014 spending review, the government should review all post-2014 major transport infrastructure projects.
  • NATA guidelines should be revised to reduce the emphasis on ‘transport user benefits’ in favour of the wider economic productivity effects of transport investments and the social and distributional effects of major schemes.
  • Government should devolve a significant proportion of post-2014 infrastructure funding to consortia of local enterprise partnerships or integrated transport authorities who can bring forward integrated proposals for infrastructure improvements that will drive sub-national economic growth.

Ultimately, our economic recovery depends on regions outside the Greater South East. If the next national infrastructure plan is to be as it just that- national- then the Chancellor must ensure that spending generates growth across the nation.

Ed Cox is Director of  IPPR North, IPPR’s dedicated think tank for the North of England