Why Future Infrastructure Planning is more important than ever
Among the many societal challenges we currently face - decarbonisation, the mental health crisis from COVID-19, the cost of living, to name a few - it is more important than ever that local authorities plan their future infrastructure priorities to deliver upon these diverse needs. It is no longer an option that the infrastructure strategies are focused simply on how to unlock future housing delivery; particularly when bidding for competitive national funding sources. Instead, we need to think about infrastructure can be planned to deliver better outcomes that local people in a more holistic way. City Science recently completed Stage 1 of the Oxfordshire Infrastructure Strategy here on behalf of the Future Oxfordshire Partnership, which is a partnership organisation made up of the six Oxfordshire local authorities, the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership among other key organisations. Stage 1 focused on identifying future infrastructure priorities to 2040 to address Oxfordshire’s wide range of needs such as decarbonisation, improved health outcomes and tackling deprivation alongside delivery of agreed housing and employment development identified in adopted Local Plans. Drawing upon Stage 1, we have developed six key learnings for other authorities, with a focus on exploring why a needs-based approach to future infrastructure planning is vital:
1. Set a clear future vision for infrastructure needs with stakeholders at the outset
From the outset, it is critical that a clear future vision is developed collaboratively with stakeholders to seek buy-in and agree what success looks like for future infrastructure delivery. Gone are the days where infrastructure simply needed to maximise the number of future new homes that could be delivered; instead, now, we must ensure infrastructure can tackle the current needs of our area, like decarbonisation, whilst also delivering growth in a clean, healthy and sustainable way. This means the approach to setting this vision must delve deeper and broader than just the Local Plan through embedding multi-departmental local policies like the Carbon Reduction Action Plan, Joint Health & Wellbeing Strategy, Economic Recovery Plan and the Energy Strategy early on. The vision setting process also needs to be well rounded; covering key future needs championed by infrastructure providers gleaned from Long-Term Development Statements (energy supply), Primary Care Estates Strategy and the emerging Water Resource Regional Plans.
2. Co-work with key stakeholders
It goes without saying that collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders is fundamental to delivering a successful and future-proofed infrastructure strategy that can withstand the test of time. This engagement process should start well before the strategy preparation begins, such as setting up the governance process and deciding who will be accountable for delivery of the strategy.
For example, the Oxfordshire approach of a dedicated collaborative forum via the Future Oxfordshire Partnership is a successful template that could be applied in areas where there are both district planning authorities and county councils. Once the framework has been set, it is vital that conversations occur with key infrastructure providers - particularly district energy suppliers (DNOs), water suppliers and healthcare providers - as early as possible to reduce the risk of an imbalanced approach. The engagement process itself should also not just involve passively listening to stakeholders, but actively co-working with them to ensure that their own priorities (like raising the chances of their own scheme being funded) are met by the strategy.
3. Recognise that bigger infrastructure schemes are not always better for local communities
Local places all have differing needs and priorities for infrastructure, particularly in relation to their own decarbonisation pathways, and therefore it is important that a place-based approach to delivering the strategy is adopted. For example, on Stage 1 we co-worked with the district councils to identify seventeen key towns and rural communities where significant future change was expected to occur. Adopting a place-based approach like this is an important framework to recognise that bigger infrastructure schemes at a regional level, like new rail lines, are not necessarily producing the broadest positive outcomes. Indeed, our infrastructure appraisal method demonstrated that often the smaller scale schemes, such as new active travel corridors or GP surgeries, can result in larger environmental and health benefits among local communities.
4. Source granular and geospatial data to ensure a robust approach
Robust evidence is the lynchpin to all infrastructure strategies, however, a place-based approach dictates that granular geospatial data right down to the smallest area is vital to capture the contrasting future infrastructure needs of different places. This also means going beyond established data sources available from the Census or the Office for National Statistics. Indeed, our approach on Stage 1 was made more efficient through use of our own Cadence tool which already centrally contained these datasets preloaded and accessible internally and externally. This allowed more time for our team to dig deeper and broaden our horizon beyond these established data sources to utilise geospatial data from sources like Sport England, Public Health England, NHS Digital Services, Ofcom and the District Network Operators (which we also uploaded into Cadence, for cascading).
5. Make the infrastructure scheme prioritisation process flexible and agile
We know that securing funding sources for future infrastructure is a thorny issue for local authorities. Section 106 contributions to fund new infrastructure from new development is here to stay (for now), but navigating the myriad of competitive national funding sources, like the Levelling Up Fund or Towns Fund, to support infrastructure delivery can be challenging; particularly from the lack of certainty over which sources will be available in the future and what eligibility criteria will be applied. In fact, funding sources changed even during our commission. It is therefore important the future infrastructure scheme prioritisation process loosely embeds current key scheme funding criteria (like carbon emission reduction potential) but is also produced in a flexible way to adapt to future funding sources that become available. For example, in Stage 1 of the Oxfordshire Infrastructure Strategy; we developed the future ability to apply weightings across the different themes of environment, health, place-shaping, productivity and connectivity to futureproof this process. This flexibility allowed us to, for example, adjust the weightings in light of the DfT releasing its Transport Decarbonisation Plan.
6. Develop user-friendly digital tools to deliver the strategy
The reality of infrastructure strategies is that they are multi-faceted and can be lengthy documents, owing to the number of scheme types and differing needs to consider. This can make communicating the key messages to members of the public and embedding the long-term priorities and processes among council officers a challenge. Digital tools should be used to cut through this detail and secure the Strategy’s long-term success. This includes tools to support the public consultation process, such as our own scheme appraisal visualisation tool we developed here. Consideration should also be given to developing digital resources to futureproof the strategy. For example, as a follow-on to the Strategy itself, we are currently in the process of building an infrastructure appraisal toolkit to allow Oxfordshire County Council officers to apply the appraisal process developed through the strategy in a practical way, including to support future funding bids.
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