Where is the plan to develop cities that aren’t London?

Senior reporter

The capital wants £1.3 trillion for its next generation of infrastructure. The rest of the country needs to start thinking big if it wants to compete.

London needs £1.3 trillion over the next 35 years to spend on infrastructure in order to keep up with the expected growth in population. That was the statement delivered by London mayor Boris Johnson this week as he launched a consultation on the city’s new infrastructure plan costed by Arup.

The plan, which is likely to get many engineers excited, included not only the already proposed Crossrail 2 rail link running north to south and a four-runway hub airport in the Thames Estuary, but also a new orbital rail network and an underground ring road.

This was on top of a raft of other transport upgrades including a link between the Channel Tunnel rail line and the planned High Speed 2 network – an omission from current plans that has attracted much criticism – plus new housing, water, energy, broadband and green spaces.

The debate is now open as to whether these are the best ways to improve infrastructure in the capital. But the plan also raises the question of whether the UK should continue to pour so much tax money into London – and even increase it.

Arup’s cost report found that capital expenditure of £1.3 trillion would be needed to fund the plan, with £1 trillion just to enhance existing infrastructure and the largest proportion going on housing, followed by transport. Total costs could be as high as £2 trillion.

Most of these costs will be met by the public sector and Arup found that current funding arrangements will create gaps of £135bn in housing and transport. These will likely be funded through a mix of efficiency savings, higher fares and bills, new revenue streams and extra government funding.

So to complete Boris’s plans, even more taxpayer money will need to be thrown at the capital. And it already receives an awful lot. Estimates vary but public expenditure on infrastructure per person in London is thought to be at least double that of anywhere else in the rest of England.

In fact, total capital spending on regional projects in the capital is greater than that for the entire rest of England apart from the South West, where most spending is going on building the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

London, of course, is different from the rest of England and the UK. Its high, dense population means it has different needs and is responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of GDP. London flag-wavers like to say it’s a global city that’s competing with for international business New York and Tokyo rather than Newcastle and Nottingham.

But it’s no coincidence that the city that receives twice as much public money per head than country’s average is also where most of our most powerful politicians – and the national media – are based.

London’s population may well continue to grow rapidly and will certainly need a large amount of investment to cope with this. But after decades of decline, other cities such as Birmingham and Manchester have also seen population booms in recent years.

There’s an interdependent relationship between infrastructure and its population: as a city grows it needs more transport, housing etc, but these investments will also provoke further growth as more people and businesses are attracted to move in. Similarly, failure to invest will encourage migration away from a city as there will be fewer jobs and facilities to support the population.

What London has realised is that it can exploit its privileged provision to convince central government to give it a grossly disproportional amount of taxpayer money. This seems especially unfair in light of the city’s importance to international businesses that would likely be more willing to stump up private investment to help keep the capital running. But what help’s London’s case is its determination to portray itself as a thriving metropolis with a shining future that deserves world-class infrastructure.

Of course, England’s regional cities may not need big new rail links or great swathes of housing development. They may be better off upgrading existing infrastructure, and plans are afoot to do some of that. But London is much better at visualising what might be possible and, in doing so, raising expectations and building the case for investment.

The capital hasn’t even finished the Crossrail commuter link and already it has drawn up plans for Crossrail 2 – and now comes this proposal for an orbital railway. In the rest of England there hasn’t been a new rail line in over a century. Why did it take George Osborne to put forward the first prominent suggestion for a high-speed trans-Pennine link? And why wasn’t there a more developed plan for him to support? Where are the North’s own champions? Battling the dominance of London-centric media, politics and business, most likely.

Boris’s grand vision for 2050 may never happen. But by setting out such a proposal, London helps pave the way for persuading central government it deserves an even greater share of power and money. The rest of the country needs to start thinking bigger and shouting louder – and the capital’s elite need to start listening.