Fyson on ... national infrastructure plan

National infrastructure plan that is bold on project priorities but shy on locational questions.

The government may have a determinedly decentralist view of planning, but no-one seems to have told the Treasury's new "Infrastructure UK" division.

Its first stab at a national infrastructure plan is a bold statement of national investment priorities as identified by the government, with barely any concession to local choice.

The coalition does seem admirably determined to improve road and rail networks, deliver low-carbon energy and transport systems, provide what it calls "sustainable access" to water for all while enhancing protection against flooding, and reduce waste as well as improve its treatment regime.

All these intentions have major spatial implications, as does the Treasury's announcement that the investment programme "will help balance the economy across all regions".

But this is no national framework for spatial planning. For a start, goals covering better broadband and sustained scientific research are included, while housing is not. Secondly, there is no attempt to integrate the various topic areas or identify which would create social or environmental strain.

Prime minister David Cameron, endorsing the plan to an audience of industrialists, was justifiably enthusiastic about the prospect of £30 billion being invested in transport over the next four years despite the straitened economic times.

But in citing first the proposal for a high-speed rail link to Birmingham, he ignored all the local resistance that the threat of a new route is already generating.

Similar problems will arise wherever infrastructure proposals must take physical form on the ground. Mapping in the Treasury's new infrastructure plan is limited to a depiction of the regions of the UK, with marginal annotations indicating that all are to receive investment bounty of some kind. Once again government appears to be fighting shy of locational issues.

There is still time to rectify this. A national plan with maps could yet emerge from the amalgamation of planning policy statements or be published as the basis for the work of the Planning Inspectorate's new major infrastructure planning unit.

For the moment, however, the situation is redolent of Labour's commitment to sustainable new communities, for which site selection stalled at large rings on small maps.

That planning has to be "able to respond quickly to the need for new infrastructure at both the national and local level" is not in question. But the hope of producing a single document to "set the framework for local and neighbourhood plans" is dependent on identifying the locational implications of national infrastructure strategies.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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