Give towns five-year infrastructure budgets to aid levelling up – report

Towns and counties should be given five-year devolved budgets for infrastructure, matching those already available to mayoral combined authorities, to help them level up, according to a government-commissioned report published today.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) suggests that unitary councils should be able to spend £6bn a year over the next five years, keeping pace with increased investment in centrally managed transport infrastructure.

The devolved funding would replace multiple ring-fenced pots of money – many of which councils must compete for – with power for local areas to deliver their own infrastructure strategies supported by five-year devolved budgets.

The NIC recommends that the current array of around 15 funding streams for local transport be streamlined into just two – devolved, flexible budgets based on population and local network size; and a targeted scheme to help areas with poor transport connections or where new industries could spring up.

The funding would enable county and unitary authorities to plan and deliver long-term infrastructure strategies developed locally that reflect the particular economic and social needs and opportunities of towns in their area, says the NIC. 

The report suggests such a shift towards greater devolution ‘would place decision making into the hands of local leaders, while ensuring that there is accountability to local businesses and residents for how the funding is spent. Town halls would then have the resources to develop a clear vision and strategy for economic development, including infrastructure, based on local strengths and priorities.’

It stresses that infrastructure investment alone cannot be expected to change economic fortunes, and that a range of areas of policy – notably education and skills – need to be co-ordinated in growth plans.

Bridget Rosewell, Commissioner, said: ‘Levelling up cannot be done from Whitehall. Every English town faces a different set of challenges and opportunities, and local leaders are best placed to develop strategies to address these.

“Competing against other councils for multiple pots of cash creates a focus on the short term, continual uncertainty, and burns up staff time. Local councils need to be empowered to deliver transformational plans for the future and held accountable for doing so.’

Councillor David Renard, economy spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: ‘Recent support to invest in local infrastructure by the government has been important but these funds are sometimes fragmented and complex. Reducing and simplifying the number of funding streams available to councils and providing long-term certainty will help councils plan and deliver better transport and connectivity across the country’.

In preparing its report, the NIC engaged with dozens of civic and business leaders and undertook social research on town residents’ investment priorities. The research found that almost four in ten town residents would prioritise improvements for motorists such as better road maintenance, while a third would most value better public transport connections to nearby cities and a similar number would prioritise enhancements for pedestrians and cyclists.

The NIC report is likely to be welcomed by North East councils, particularly those south of the Tyne that have not yet done a devolution deal, as it offers the prospect of access to devolved five-year transport funding without having to agree to a deal. But it still has to be approved by the government.