A Smarter Approach to Infrastructure Planning

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….by Hannah Hickman

In December 2018, Stephen Hall, Nick Croft and I were successful in winning a tender for some exciting work on infrastructure planning and governance. Commissioned by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), this was to be carried out in partnership with Peter Brett Associates (PBA).

We were set some challenging tasks:

  1. To assist in understanding better the practical barriers to the co-ordination of infrastructure and growth, and how approaches to infrastructure planning vary under different governance arrangements;
  2. To test the effectiveness of current approaches and explore how they might be improved to achieved greater integration;
  3. To create visual tools to demonstrate the range of players involved in the governance and delivery of infrastructure; and
  4. To provide a framework for discussing and addressing the issues that emerged.

We quickly found ourselves buried in local plans, infrastructure delivery frameworks and infrastructure provider investment frameworks, scratching our heads trying to fathom the inter-relationships between the myriad of players involved in the governance, delivery and funding of infrastructure, but as with all research, this material came alive, on talking to those on the ground. This we did by interviewing over 40 planning professionals and infrastructure providers in three in-depth case studies of Staffordshire County Council, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority and Glasgow City Council, chosen to reflect highly divergent governance contexts. This material was then supplemented by a national survey of all local planning authorities.

In some respects, readers of the report might feel rather dispirited by the findings. We identified five principles of good infrastructure planning:

  1. A shared vision of place, with clear objectives
  2. Specific infrastructure priorities identified to achieve that vision, aligned to funding sources
  3. Effective and early engagement to align planning and delivery
  4. Capacity, knowledge and resources
  5. Continuous learning and dissemination.

Yet we found relatively little evidence of these principles being realised in practice. Effective infrastructure planning is undoubtedly being hindered by complex multi-level governance arrangements, the demise of strategic planning, the lack of a stable funding environment for local authorities and an over-emphasis on competitive bidding, the absence of place narrative from regulatory frameworks, and lack of alignment between both the funding cycles and geographies of providers, with those used for local authority growth plans. In response to our findings, the RTPI has warned:

“that a failure to adopt a more joined-up approach to planning the UK’s towns and cities will make it impossible to meet the challenges of climate change, population growth and environmental risks over the coming decades” (RTPI 2019).

However, we did find pockets of innovation and good practice (driven largely by enthusiastic individuals and partnership built over long periods of time) and, importantly, a real commitment from both providers and planners to seek to work more closely together to drive improvements in practice. Striking, nevertheless, was the overwhelming desire from all players to see greater leadership from Central Government on infrastructure planning, both in terms of setting a strategic direction for infrastructure, tasking their own departments (health, education and transport in particular) to engage in a place based approach, and in addressing the negative impacts of a ‘deal’ based approach to infrastructure planning.

Striking also was the perception of infrastructure planning as a sub-set niche planning activity, involving the hidden world of undergound pipes and wires (did you know that ‘infra’ derives from the Latin word meaning ‘under’?), but as a research team we concluded the project by unanimously believing that infrastructure planning should be seen as a core-planning activity, deserved of more attention, and critical to the effective functioning of our society and effective place making.

If you want to read more about our recommendations for improving practice, then do read our report (or at least the summary!)


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