Infrastructure, the economy and planning: the case for new approaches

Marshall, T.

Both the goals and the mechanisms of economics are deeply contested. There is no broad consensus on the capacity of economics to analyse social reality, or to prescribe measures to achieve whatever goals societies see as desirable – economic growth, social well being, long term global improvement, and so on. The ITRC programme is not mainly concerned with these areas of contestation, reserving most of its firepower for data-rich analysis, including much modelling, so that a far better understanding is being created of how infrastructure systems in the UK work and what the options are in changing their functioning over coming decades. However, the programme has economic components and the Cambridge seminar necessarily therefore enters the above contested territory. This contribution explores one dimension which, at least to an outsider, appears not to have had sufficient attention – the geographical or spatial aspects of system functioning, deeply implicated in the arguments about economic growth and development. Programme participants may disagree with this judgment, pointing to all the work in the January 2014 summary report on spatial aspects of energy and transport system research in particular. However, whilst admitting the very great value of this work, it is suggested here that there are fields of thinking which could enrich this, bringing fresh perspectives into the arguments about space, infrastructure and the economy.

One current model of state policy on “infrastructure and growth” is represented by the UK government National Infrastructure Plans prepared since 2010 (HM Treasury, 2010-2013). These are innovative policy instruments, but consistently avoid any geographical overview of the space being “planned” for. This is on the basis that decisions on projects should be the prerogative of private corporate decision making, with government only left to decide what support it will give these, or, in cases where public intervention is unavoidable (roads, rail, airports), taking a project by project approach. This paper, starting from spatial planning thinking, looks at the aid such thinking could give for the incorporation of genuine policies for better management of infrastructure investment, including of “interdependencies”. This can point to the scope for incorporating space and territory within a re-imagined National Infrastructure Plan, or, ideally, within a National Space and Infrastructure Framework (TCPA 2011,Wong et al 2012).

It is argued that progressing an effective reframing of infrastructure governance will be facilitated by a reassertion of spatial planning as part of the state’s machinery or set of levers. Because planning has been out of favour with governments for many years, as a broader mechanism of public steering, the potential of planning systems at national, regional and urban regional levels has been largely neglected. This weakens the scope for dealing with precisely the infrastructure interdependencies that are one of the main targets of ITRC as well as other major current programmes. Interdependencies are in part spatial. Co-location generates the need for integrated spatial planning. Multi-purpose land use puts an even higher premium on taking infrastructure into account through strategic planning (Government Office for Science 2010). Interactions between infrastructure systems and the activities they enable have been the everyday material of planning for centuries, from the making of the Roman road systems for whole territories, or the water systems for urbanisation, to the electrification programmes at the core of so many modernisation schemes around the world since the early twentieth century (Herce 2013, Marshall 2012, Neuman 2006, 2009, Neuman and Smith 2010).

Infrastructure, the economy and planning: the case for new approaches (pdf, 340 KB). The future of national infrastructure systems & economic prosperity conference, Cambridge, UK, March 27–28, 2014.