Smart levelling up: a view from the West Midlands

Turner & Townsend Limited

I recently had the pleasure of chairing a panel discussion on how infrastructure can support economic growth in the Midlands.

We’re at an interesting juncture in the UK’s levelling up journey, and only time will tell if the rebadged Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will pass the Ronseal test. For this to happen, well thought out and tailored infrastructure investment has a critical and enduring role to play.  

Asset investment is not just as an end in itself, but a way to provide the connectivity that will enable progress in social outcomes, net zero and productivity. This calls for smart delivery and a razor sharp focus on setting up projects for success.

We had some fascinating discussions on the panel, and here are five views that I took away on what’s important for infrastructure delivery in Birmingham, the West Midlands and beyond as we look to level up.

Levelling up is a local endeavour as well as a national one – but it will require more devolved powers

It’s important to recognise that impactful and sustainable outcomes for local communities do not happen in Whitehall.  Providing the outcomes that local communities need is a complex challenge, which requires a level of understanding that only local leaders can offer. I was pleased to see the National Infrastructure Commission recognise this in their Infrastructure, Towns and Regeneration report.

Our city regions are working hard to compete for levelling up funding, but what they really need is security of investment and the financial authority to move infrastructure plans forward by being able to raise investment. In Birmingham, we’re seeing great pockets of tailored local investment in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, such as the Perry Barr residential scheme – but we need to see much more devolved power for Andy Street and his team, so that they can make the complex decisions and raise the investment required for long-term, joined up delivery.

Infrastructure is the great connector

Some commentators on levelling up like to point out that it’s about more than infrastructure. While I take that view on board, I think we need to recognise and champion infrastructure as the enabler that allows us to capitalise on other investment opportunities. Well-coordinated transport developments allow us to connect people to better homes, employment and investment opportunities, all while reducing our carbon footprint and ensuring cleaner air.

Planned schemes such as the Urban Growth Company’s The Hub demonstrate a vision for how major transport hubs – in this case Birmingham Airport – can provide the gateway for inward investment and social outcomes if they’re invested in, and considered in tandem with wider regeneration schemes.

Educating and inspiring talent holds the key to future success

As we shared in our International Construction Market Survey, in the UK there are many more workers approaching retirement than those entering the industry, which is contributing to a considerable skills shortfall.

Attracting a new generation of diverse talent is essential for clients in the Midlands and beyond, to ensure they have the skills and behaviours  for successful smart delivery. At a time when the sector faces an acute crisis in traditional skills, we need to present a compelling offer for young people – one that moves away from the association of construction with ‘low skilled’ labour, and inspires new generations of data specialists, digital engineers, logistics experts and asset managers. 

It’s equally important that clients work hard to engage their supply chain, keeping in mind that it is an extension of the central organisation. The lower tiers of a supply chain are often where the real untapped potential lies, where innovators have the expertise to enact change. This innovation can only happen if the supply chain fully understands the client’s vision and behaviours, and if their endeavours are recognised through reward mechanisms geared to these. 

Effective spatial planning doesn’t happen in silos

Our world is increasingly interconnected, and infrastructure planning requires joined up thinking to deliver social, economic and environmental outcomes in the broadest possible sense. Long-term spatial planning is a priority, and that’s why we support the crucial work of the UK2070 Commission to tackle the regional inequalities that could limit the outcomes of levelling up.

We’ve already seen the early impact of Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone on driving down vehicle traffic in and around the city centre – and as a knock-on effect, this initiative is really driving investment in public transport and green vehicles.  Similarly, light rail developments such as Birmingham’s Westside Metro Extension are improving congestion while reducing journey times for passengers, reducing noise and leading to better air quality.

These are prime examples of how well-planned and coordinated investment can make Birmingham a safer, more pleasant place to live and work.

A multi-hub economy holds the key to net zero

Infrastructure has an incredibly complex role to play in climate action. On the one hand the built environment as a whole has one of the greatest carbon footprints of any sector. At the same time, investment in resilient infrastructure networks will be vital to resist the climate crisis itself. 

The infrastructure decisions taken now and in the next decade are critical to delivering the UK’s net zero ambitions by 2050, as we set out in our net zero roadmap. A multi-hub economy must embed decarbonisation and sustainable transport investment in strategic planning for our region, and nationally.