All mapped out?

A study mapping government policies in England shows the importance of understanding the bigger picture, as Cecilia Wong, Mark Baker, Stephen Hincks, Andreas Schultz-Baing and Brian Webb explain

In a recent article written for The Observer, the columnist Will Hutton asks the question: ‘Where are the new airports and railways we so desperately need?’ Currently infrastructure is a source of political fancy – the National Infrastructure Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) are testament to this – and so Hutton’s question is not only loaded with political implications but offers an insight into the challenges facing the long-term sustainability of Britain’s infrastructure nodes and networks.

A close reading of Hutton’s piece is somewhat revealing. In pinpointing the reasons for Britain’s deficient infrastructure system, Hutton’s focus is not on the current economic woes or even the difficulties that come with engaging with a hard-nosed private sector – as you might expect. Rather, it is the apparent lack of ambition and ‘penny-pinching’ on the part of central government – particularly the Treasury – that Hutton laments.

So why, even in recent decades when times were relatively ‘good’, has Britain not seen effective delivery of infrastructure when it is needed in the right locations? For Hutton the reason is quite simple: there is no ‘shared vision of the future’ or ‘little desire to make common cause to deliver it’.

Harsh words indeed, but they are not without foundation or relevance beyond the infrastructure question. In the last decade or so, the Royal Town Planning Institute has commissioned a number of studies exploring the changing spatial configuration of Britain, cutting across issues of housing, employment, flooding, transport and climate change to name but a few.

The most recent, a Map for England – undertaken by the Centre for Urban Policy Studies at the University of Manchester – aimed to review and subsequently map the policies and programmes of government departments, their agencies and non-departmental public bodies that have an explicit spatial expression to inform the discussion of spatial policy priorities.

The impetus for the study lay in the assumption that policymakers – armed with a better understanding of how different policies and programmes interact and subsequently affect spatial development – will be in a position to make more informed policy judgments. The aim was quite simple but the message emerging from the piece was stark: a shared vision of the future and an understanding of the spatial implications of decision-making are needed so that future development is not frustrated and is sensitively pursued within a shared understanding of the policy priorities facing different sectors.

So what did the study reveal? Three key government policy statements were reviewed: the NPPF; the National Infrastructure Plan; and Unlocking Growth in Cities. The review showed that, at best, these key documents – underpinning current government thinking – only offer a partial picture of sectorally-based spatial developments. Questions such as the degree to which the national road, rail and digital communication proposals will, in combination, concentrate resources along particular strategic corridors and/or complement the potential concentration of resources on eight core cities remain unanswered.

The relationships between these and other issues (e.g. location of new power stations) and the spatial context of environmental constraints (e.g. national parks) and risks (e.g. flooding) are not explored at national level or in the light of spatially varied socio-economic contexts relating to future population projections, house prices and affordability, unemployment, levels of deprivation and so on.

The review and mapping exercise suggested there was apparently little understanding in government policy of how these issues might complement or conflict with each other, creating synergies or tensions that might lead to successes or failures in delivery and implementation and ultimately contributing to, or frustrating, the future economic growth and sustainable development that the government has committed itself to achieving.

Let us take a particular example – in this case the Regional Growth Fund (RGF) – to illustrate the point. The RGF is a £2.4bn fund operating in England and is intended to support private sector investment to stimulate sustainable economic growth and employment generation. We can examine the spatial distribution of RGF funding and map this distribution against funding cuts in local authority areas within the core city-regions. This reveals some interesting patterns.

While the west of England city-region LEP receives relatively high levels of RGF, the revenue spending power of local authorities in that area also faced the lowest levels of funding cuts. Potentially, the combined impact of low levels of funding cuts coupled with comparatively generous RGF provides a strong platform for this area to continue to develop its competitive economic advantage. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the north eastern LEP not only receives a relatively low level of RGF, but the local authorities in the city-region, (especially those in Tyne and Wear and Teesside) have experienced high levels of public sector funding cuts. The picture would, on this reading, appear to be far less positive for the northeast when compared to the situation in the west of England.

regional growth fund map


While the government acknowledges that one size does not fit all and intends to devolve more power to local authorities to address their own local issues, this should not be confused with the need to coordinate activities and to provide spatially integrated guidance to local authorities about delivering local policies. A Map for England unapologetically contends that government policies and actions – even without a deliberate spatial framework – create spatial outcomes and, cumulatively, that they create very stark spatial impacts.

The outcome is essentially a ‘multi-speed England’. For instance, the National Infrastructure Plan very much focuses on reinforcing London’s dominant position with major investments strengthening its spatial connections domestically (via HS2), internationally (to maintain its international aviation hub status) and virtually (by becoming one of the super-connected world cities via superfast broadband). At the opposite end of the spectrum, the northeast’s position is less favourable and appears, from the rhetoric in policy documents at least, to be marginalised in terms of the future major investment plans and projects.

A pro-growth policy framework has been consistently applied across government documents. As a result, there is a consistent lack of attention paid to the social and demographic drivers such as deprivation and demographic change as well as the environmental drivers of climate change. The NPPF deliberately avoids any spatial steer to future housing provisions and simply delegates the job to mechanisms at the local level. Analysis of future household projections clearly shows the high growth areas in eastern England are likely to be in the least sustainable locations if there is no containment policy combined with brownfield newbuild targets, nor major infrastructure investments to improve their physical and mobile accessibility.

More importantly, these areas are also classified by the Environment Agency as among those with serious water stress. While each local authority can deal with the issue via their local plans, it will not be effective and efficient for multiple authorities to deal with the same issue independently without some overarching guidance from the government. From the perspective of the Map for England research team, it is these kinds of acute tensions, synergies and conflicts emerging from different policy agendas and coupled with the asymmetric consequences of devolved political responsibilities that need to be more clearly understood not only for England but across the UK.

  • Cecilia Wong, Mark Baker, Stephen Hincks, Andreas Schultz-Baing and Brian Webb are based at the Centre for Urban Policy Studies. Email Stephen Hincks to find out more about the project.


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