England’s Economic Heartland has the potential to become the UK’s Silicon Valley: so said the National Infrastructure Commission in their report to Government last autumn. It is a potential that the strategic political and business leaders across the corridor have long understood, with England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance tracing its origins back to 2014, predating the Commission’s work by nearly three years.
The Heartland – which stretches from Swindon, through Oxford and Milton Keynes onto Cambridge and from Northamptonshire down to Hertfordshire – is a region of economic importance to the UK, and not just because it is a net contributor to the UK Exchequer. The Heartland’s 280,000 businesses include world leading innovators in industrial sectors that are driving the 21st century economy.
Our economic success has come at a price. Economic growth combined with underinvestment in infrastructure and services means that the pressure on our transport, digital and wider infrastructure networks has grown to the point where they operate at close to capacity the majority of the time. The resilience of our networks has dropped, affecting business productivity and making travel for individuals increasingly challenging.
The National Infrastructure Commission believes our economy could double or even triple in size over the next 30 years. Economic growth on that scale is transformational and the Commission put infrastructure at the heart of the approach required to enable that potential to be realised.
The Commission also recognises that investment in an east-west multi-modal transport spine would revolutionise the way we travel, transforming what continues to largely be a radial pattern of strategic networks centred on London.
No wonder then delivery of East West Rail and the ‘expressway’ is seen as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity.
But for a spine to be successful it has to connect with the wider transport system and so there remains the need to make the strategic case for additional investment in transport infrastructure and services; investment that will then support the business investment that will create the jobs that delivers the economic growth.
At the same time though we mustn’t forget that economic success is dependent upon a range of infrastructure – digital infrastructure, utilities (power, water) to mention but a few obvious ones. More importantly it is about joining up our investment in these individual pieces of the wider infrastructure system in a way that gives business investors greater confidence that they can commit their future to this part of the UK.
In doing this though we must look to the future in terms of infrastructure needs.
If we look back 10 years, let alone 30 years, then we quickly remind ourselves of how far and how fast our lives have changed and continue to change. The next generation, and the one after that, has a different outlook when it comes to what’s important – increasingly access to wifi is seen as the essential piece of infrastructure. And if we think about the rise of on-demand services (like Uber), or the demise of the traditional high-street shopping experience, these are further examples of how our lives are changing, of how we are looking for different solutions to our needs.
The type of investment we need to make in our transport networks will need to change. Digital connectivity will offer opportunities to do things in different ways. We must ensure our investment choices enable the future rather than solve problems of the past. Our investment choices must not inadvertently force the next generation to adopt our way of doing business when their approach to life is quite different.
Economic growth on this scale and the growth in housing needs that comes with it brings with it pressure on our environment – both natural and built, and urban and rural. And so another challenge facing England’s Economic Heartland is how to enable our economic potential to be realised without having an impact on our environment.
England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance is the political and business leaders’ response to all of these challenges.
It is a strategic, collaborative partnership that was established to provide the leadership that is essential if the region is to meet these challenges and deliver economic success that creates opportunity for all.
The Alliance’s initial focus was on transport, and this led to the establishment of the Strategic Transport Forum in February 2016. The Forum is putting together the overarching Transport Strategy and developing the proposal that will see it become the basis for our very own statutory Sub-national Transport Body.
But the Alliance’s work goes beyond strategic transport: our work on digital connectivity and the wider strategic infrastructure provides the opportunity for the region to have a single view on strategic infrastructure investment. It provides the partners with the forum in which to set out how our approach to investment needs to evolve to ensure we have a 21st century infrastructure. It provides them with a basis for setting out a vision for the future that will inspire and drive change
The work on the overarching Transport Strategy, coupled with that on the wider strategic infrastructure agenda, gives a platform on which to make the strategic case to Government for the additional investment needed to deliver at the local level. It also gives the partners the forum through which they can engage with longer-term investors from the private sector that will ultimately realise the economic potential.
Our proposal to have a National Policy Statement for the Heartland will help cement this approach into a statement of public sector policy that extends beyond the immediate political cycle.
None of this is to underplay the challenge that the Heartland faces moving forward. But in England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance the local political and business leaders are providing the strategic leadership that is fundamental to realising our economic potential in a way that is sustainable for the longer term.
About the Author
This post was written by Martin Tugwell. Martin Tugwell is the director of England’s Economic Heartland Strategic Alliance.