GLA Debate - Where should London invest in its Infrastructure up to 2050

Tuesday 15 October 2013

The UK must move from a short-term, project-by-project approach to its infrastructure provision to a more holistic ‘systems’ strategy that looks at needs and constraints in a wider, multi-modal way.

So said Professor Dieter Robin Helm, professor of energy policy at the university of Oxford and Fellow in Economics at New College, Oxford, at a special NLA debate at the GLA yesterday on how London and the rest of the country should invest in its infrastructure up to 2050.

Helm said that although infrastructure is ‘all the rage’, everyone thinks providing more of it a good idea and that we should have plans, ‘the trouble is that is as far as it often goes’, with how it might be financed ‘remarkably virgin territory’. Furthermore, only a ‘nanosecond’ passes before conversations descend into a list of preferred projects. ‘I want to suggest that that is precisely wrong as a way of thinking about the problem’, he said.

Instead, there need to be studies showing links between infrastructure and competitiveness, where constraints bite and how much they cost – and with schemes like HS2 the right question is not about spending time on the train but on whether the UK wants a high speed system. It doesn’t make much sense, added Helm, to build a high speed link without thinking about where the bulk of London’s new houses or airports will be located, or about what it is you are transporting, and to where. ‘A London infrastructure plan needs to fit together those systems’, he said. Similarly, if we are to tunnel through the Chilterns, it makes good sense to think about having transmission and water systems alongside at the same time, and there is nothing to suggest that such coordination benefits have been thought about. London needs a balance sheet showing what its main assets are if it is to move away from short-term cash financing, while the capital city has the ‘absurd circumstance’ of losing most of the tax revenue it raises to the Treasury. ‘That’s completely the wrong way to think about it from an economic efficiency point of view.’ The 2050 plan is an opportunity to have a rethink about how infrastructure is done in London.

Aecom principal Chris Choa sketched out the UK’s need for new infrastructure in a world increasingly attending to urbanisation and globalisation issues, and with cities like London ‘pulling away from their nations.’ London has a very productive and educated workforce amongst other benefits, but the bad news, said Choa, is that there are ‘capacity constraints virtually everywhere’, including high housing costs and 800,000 new homes needed by 2020 already showing a deficit. But the aviation picture is also serious, with a lack of connections to growing regions, which will affect London’s economy. Volterra Partners chairman Bridget Rosewall said that infrastructure providers needed to show ambition and take a leaf out of Joseph Bazalgette’s book in overproviding, creating sewers ‘fantastically bigger than needed’ because he wanted to future–proof the city. ‘We’ve been coasting’, she said. ‘We need to get away from that to creating.’

The audience at City Hall also head from Harvey McGrath, Chair, London Enterprise Panel, and Isabel Dedring, deputy mayor, transport at the GLA, who said that the 2050 plan on investment and infrastructure – ‘no idea too crazy’ – will be published next summer.  

David Taylor, New London Quarterly

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