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What infrastructure really needs is a growth-first strategy

It will come as little surprise that London First might take a different line to IPPR North’s call for government to take a ‘North-first’ approach to infrastructure investment.

But we should avoid making this an either-or choice. Whether or not London or the North now succeeds in attracting new infrastructure investment will depend on how quickly our cities can unite to champion a ‘growth-first’ strategy above prioritising any one location.

If I were being argumentative, I would set out how London’s success is of benefit to the UK at large.

How, as a global business hub, London serves the country as the principal location for corporate headquarters. How it is the UK’s international gateway for talent, tourists and investment. How much of this investment is footloose and global.

And how construction and infrastructure spending on London projects directly benefits the rest of the country (PwC estimates that some two-thirds of the GVA and job creation stemming from central London office development accrues to the UK outside London).

Or on the numbers themselves I could, for example, raise a quizzical eyebrow at the IPPR’s decision to identify all Crossrail investment as general public spending, when some two-thirds of its funding (uniquely in a UK context) is coming from London itself through passenger fares, business rates and developer contributions – with the public component being injected upfront, not at the project’s end.

No winners

But let me rise above such finger-wagging. For if there is one certainty, it is that turning the debate about infrastructure investment into a zero-sum game would be to the detriment of us all.

“So let’s avoid making this a false choice between investing in North or South”

Squabbling before the Treasury about who gets what size slice of the cake will only result in the great British bake-off never happening at all. In the wise words of Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese just last week: “Our message wasn’t, ‘We want a bigger slice of the cake’, it was, ‘Help us make a bigger cake’.”

So let’s avoid making this a false choice between investing in North or South, of falling into the trap of thinking that we can only do one project at a time, or that more Birmingham or Manchester means less London or Leeds.

And let’s instead focus on championing our cities’ common causes – the policy support, investment and powers needed to drive growth in every city, not just one or two.

Call to action

That means rallying government to recommit to the Northern Powerhouse concept (if not perhaps the brand), to get behind key infrastructure investments like HS2, Crossrail 2 and improved TransPennine road and rail links, and to come forward with meaningful plans for greater fiscal devolution so that our cities can better plan their own futures themselves.

In short, let’s get behind a growth-first approach to infrastructure investment.

David Leam is infrastructure director at London First

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