London Infrastructure Summit- my five key takeaways
13 September 2018
After a day packed with presentations, debate and some good old-fashioned gossip, here are my key takeaways from yesterday’s Summit.
1 Despite the storm clouds, business remains upbeat about infrastructure
In spite of the Brexit uncertainty hanging over the economy, and the news of Crossrail’s delay still being fresh, this was no occasion for doom and gloom. While speakers such as Heidi Alexander, the Deputy Mayor for Transport, prefaced their remarks by expressing appropriate contrition at the delay to Crossrail, the dominant mood was one of keeping calm and carrying on. As London First CEO Jasmine Whitbread reminded us, Crossrail will still be worth the wait. We finally have political support to expand Heathrow. National Grid’s London Power Tunnels are complete, while tunnelling will soon start on the Tideway super sewer. And as HS2’s Mark Thurston was at pains to stress, HS2 continues to move ahead, to the benefit of the UK as a whole. At a difficult time for the country, infrastructure remains a beacon of opportunity.
Credit is due to Sir John Armitt and the National Infrastructure Commission for their first National Infrastructure Assessment which has inspired and encouraged the infrastructure sector. In his opening remarks, Sir John highlighted the opportunities ahead – from rail, to digital, to water, which were picked up across the day. Heidi Alexander and Crossrail 2MD Michele Dix emphasised the Mayor’s unequivocal commitment to Crossrail 2, a project whose need was also endorsed by Sir Peter Hendy of Network Rail. Gareth Elliot of Mobile UK presented a roadmap for 5G rollout in the capital. Thames Water laid out their new plans for water supplies in the SE, including a new reservoir at Abingdon (which, as Sir John Armitt said, is now a priority scheme after languishing on the back burner for years). Opportunities for growth are being seized upon across Gatwick, City and Stansted, as well as at Heathrow. As the Minister for London, Jo Johnson MP, made clear, the main challenge now for the infrastructure sector is one of affordability. More work is needed for London to successfully land the right schemes at the right price. This will require London to help foot the bill, for as one speaker remarked (apolitically) there is no magic money tree. In the end we will all have to pay for new infrastructure, whether as taxpayers or users.
3 No-one’s in the mood for playing North vs South
Or at least almost no-one anyway. London has never been shy of reminding the regions that a strong London is good for Britain. But London hasn’t been as good at acknowledging that the same is true for strong regions. That has all changed. The emergence of a new group of city mayors across the Midlands and North, supported by new and revitalised business groups like the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and the North West Business Leadership Team, has boosted northern clout and enabled new cross-regional relationships to blossom. You couldn’t have squeezed a train ticket between Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and Jasmine Whitbread of London First as they set out the joint case for Crossrail 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. And while there may be the odd outbreak of yah-boo politics from the Mayors, this cross-country business collaboration is here to stay.
4 Technology has come off the fringe and is now centre stage
In the early years of the London Infrastructure Summit, technology was a fringe issue and tech companies fringe players. No more. Companies such as Uber, Intel and Bosch are now at least as visible in the infrastructure debate as traditional contractors, and better use of data and tech was an ever-present theme. As WSP’s Rachel Skinner commented, talking about connected and autonomous vehicles, future urban mobility and even flying cars no longer identifies you as the crazy person in the corner. Better use of automation and technology is now centre stage. And as Theo Blackwell, the Mayor’s Chief Digital Officer observed, this makes more and better digital infrastructure, like 5G, a top priority for the capital. London is a leading tech city. We can’t afford to now become a follower.
5 Housing is a core part of the infrastructure debate
With a need to build 65,000 homes across the capital London every year, Stephen Dance of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority was not alone in identifying the need to better join up housing and infrastructure as a key challenge. New rail links must now be more than just a railway and must demonstrate that unlocking new housing is core. Listening to the debates today, that’s clearly a message that has been taken to heart by the promoters of Crossrail 2, the Bakerloo Line Extension, as well as the proposed extensions of Crossrail to Ebbsfleet and the DLR to Thamesmead. But as we heard from the likes of Liz Peace from the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation, it’s not just about big new rail lines, as opening up riverside access, new bridges and bus routes can make a major difference in the short term. And of course new communities need new utility and digital infrastructure, as well as schools and health facilities.
The final word went to conference chair John Dickie of London First who emphasised the need for concerted business support to now make our infrastructure ambitions a reality. That sounds like a cue to get back to the day job.
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