Transforming cities: transport and infrastructure

Never has there been a better time for government to borrow money to fund or underwrite development risk, matched by an asset that has a future value: Sir David Higgins

"Our cities face enormous changes from climate, migration, security, ageing and technology but never has there been a better time for government to borrow money to fund or underwrite development risk, matched by an asset that has a future value,” High Speed 2 Executive Chairman, Sir David Higgins has told a CEDA audience in Brisbane.

Visiting from the United Kingdom, Sir David spoke of the challenges facing many cities today in a post-GFC economy, as well as the trends affecting major cities over the coming decades and the planning needed to overcome these obstacles for sufficient growth.

“The world’s populations are moving to cities attracted by job opportunities, the security and environmental quality of life offered, particularly in the West. This mass migration is now a long term challenge to the ability of our cities to adapt,” he said.

“But cities whose infrastructure struggles to meet the demands of this growth, risk the quality of life.”

Sir David also outlined the importance of investment in infrastructure to attract people with a wide range of skill sets to ensure growth continues positively.

“The real challenge we have in the UK is about an imbalanced economy,” he said.

“If you look at the cost of houses in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, the average cost of housing and the average cost of office spacing is one-third of the cost of housing and office space in London.

“You have an entirely distorted, very centralist unitary economy – a thriving city of London; world competitor in financial services and communications, fashion, you name it and then a struggling North where it’s underperforming.

“One of the major reasons of that is due to massive investment in the South and not the North.

“London is the city of eight million people but has a metro area of another eight; so there is 16 million people that live within a one hour journey of the centre of London that can travel by regular train services to London every day.

“North of England, if you take Birmingham, Midlands and Yorkshire, there’s the same 16 million people but there’s no evidence at all of people commuting between those cities for work.

“In fact, if you look at Leeds and Manchester, they’re 35 miles apart (but) less than 0.5 per cent of the population commute every day between those cities. Why? Because the trains are all old converted Leyland buses and there are four every hour.”

Sir David also highlighted the social impacts of solid infrastructure through better housing and transport links.

He used the example of East London, which before the Olympics housed a catchment of one million people with no major shopping centre, department store or quality office buildings.

“While the physical deprivation was obvious the human cost was in some ways worse. A life expectance of six years less than West London residents and long term unemployment, in some cases three generations unemployed in a single family,” he said.

“The foundation for this urban regeneration is public transport. Nine railway lines converge in Stratford including the new Crossrail line which allows people to live here and commute to the city or businesses to relocate and draw skilled people from a wide catchment.

“Today Stratford is a thriving city of 20,000 new jobs and 5000 homes on the Olympic site alone.”

Sir David said that this emphasis on public infrastructure is key to long term prosperity.

“Future generations will look back at this generation and judge whether we left them a legacy of thriving, sustainable and inclusive cities,” he said.