The UK is committed to spending billions on regeneration and infrastructure projects to ‘level up’ the country. But how do you decide where investment should be prioritised and what kind of interventions will have the most beneficial impact? The answer, says Lisa Littlefair, comes by consulting communities and designing projects around their individual needs.
By a number of measures the UK is one of the most geographically unequal nations in the developed world.
London has been significantly more prosperous than the rest of the country for well over a century while infrastructure spending per head in the capital has historically been higher than other areas.
Against this backdrop, the aim of the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is to renew and revitalise ‘left behind’ areas – but this is not simply about healing the North/South divide.
There are pockets of deprivation in every part of the four nations that comprise the UK. The inequalities within regions, within cities even, can be larger than the inequalities between regions.
Driving forward the north of England’s economic growth will be driven by strong regional connectivity, allowing local areas to focus on and trade in their specialist strengths and concentrating expertise as part of a system, trading skills and services, pursuing economies of scale, and optimising the delivery of services such as healthcare and education.
A new approach to strategic planning is needed to realise this vision of an integrated social and economic ‘polycentric powerhouse’. A high capacity, effective, and efficient rail network linking cities and towns across the north provides the physical connectivity that makes the opportunities real and accessible to all ages.
Effective investment in transportation infrastructure can change perception of opportunity and life chances for communities by removing barriers to unlock aspiration and expectation. This in turn enables generations to grow up with a sense of freedom and aspiration, knowing they are not limited to what’s on the doorstep but that they have access to good opportunities without sacrificing their roots and place in their community.
This is why we should think of levelling up in terms of equality rather than geography.
We need to put away the atlas. It is only by looking through a ‘social’ lens that we can identify, first, which communities are most in need and, second, how we can invest in these places to make a positive difference to people’s life chances and quality of life.
Consultation is key to inclusion
Current government regeneration schemes, the largest of which are the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund and the £3.6bn Towns Fund, emphasise the importance of “delivering in partnership with local areas” and “giving communities a stronger voice”.
It’s an approach we are already taking. Our teams go into the heart of communities to carry out groundwork research, talking and listening to the residents to develop an understanding of the issues they face. We then work closely with stakeholders and decision-makers, across public and private sectors, to design projects that will address local needs and aspirations.
The underlying causes of inequality are complex and different for each community. Decision-making processes that are well informed by the community lay a good foundation for developing policies and projects that address entrenched, localised disadvantage and effect real change.
Integration of consultation and engagement into project design and development will help to deliver inclusive infrastructure and services that cater for the broadest possible cross-section of the population.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill published in May states that it “intends to reduce geographic economic, social and health inequalities” through its 12 missions, one of which specifically targets the improvement of transport infrastructure outside London.. We know that tackling inequality is a multifaceted agenda. Key to it is considering how infrastructure can serve other functions and produce multiple social outcomes, increasing the resilience and wellbeing of communities, and providing the services, the facilities and the environment their inhabitants need to flourish.
Through consultation and engagement at every stage of the project lifecycle, coupled with people-centred planning and design, we can pinpoint where the inequalities are and invest in tailored responses that promote inclusive growth. If this is not levelling up, what is?
Leaving a lasting social legacy
The amount of public money committed by the UK government is impressive but, of course, it’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it. The success of levelling up should be measured in terms of the positive outcomes for communities, not the amount of money spent.
The increased importance now attached by ministers to public consultation is a step in the right direction. Yet the fact remains that most decisions on where to direct investment are still made centrally.
For levelling up to be effective, communities must be empowered to shape and influence development in their area. Openness and engagement will support inclusive problem solving and decision-making, averting policy and investment decisions that only help the few, not the many.
This will create the opportunities for the infrastructure sector to design and deliver projects that can leave a lasting social legacy and make a significant contribution to driving inclusive growth, in places that really need it.
A reliable, frequent, and fast railway network provides a clear and defined foundational structure for a transportation system that is accessible to all. It removes the barriers that exist for many such as a driving licence, car ownership, or time sensitivity.
Effective rail networks create the opportunity for generations to thrive, and bring a sense of aspiration and opportunity for everyone, enabling people to live where they choose and access a wider range of opportunities than before.
Journey times and capacity building are important, but a great measure of a productive, enabled, aspirational society is one where opportunities are brought within reach of everyone.
It is only by looking through a ‘social’ lens that we can identify which communities are most in need.