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Science Cities ll debate findings - part one

Restoring a campus master-plan: the Teaching and Learning Building at the University of Birmingham (BDP)

Future Cities Forum was delighted that Stephen Dance, Director of the Commercial Adviser Team at the Infrastructure & Projects Authority, told our discussion panel this week that the debate we held on 'Science Cities ll' was 'a very rich discussion, with some great ideas, which I would urge everyone to continue to push further'.

He went on to say there will be some tough choices to make in terms of investment decisions post Covid-19 '...we have to get the public and private investment right around this. We have hospitals to build as well as the roads and railways of the future, so we have to think hard where we put our spending'.

'The question perhaps to pose,' Stephen said 'is the extent to which the infrastructure investment might change following our response to Covid-19. When I think about infrastructure - the norm has been to talk about this in terms of transport - and this is all about connecting physically - but there has been much less emphasis on broadband - the benefits of which we have been enjoying over last few months because of Covid-19. From a government perspective there is no rowing back on infrastructure investment but affordability is an issue now with more emphasis on prioritisation and timing - but no less ambition. You will have seen announcements about hospital investment which is great for health campuses - but also more traditional economic infrastructure around roads. The extent to which we are putting enough emphasis on virtual connectivity - telecoms and digital infrastructure - is it enough? Maybe we should be thinking more about what happens in this space in the next few years?'

Questions have surrounded the future of 'science cities' - those rich in R&D and science discovery - such as Oxford and Cambridge, with their traffic congestion problems and housing issues. So has the world changed with the pandemic and is there still the need for new physical innovation hubs when scientists can connect in conversation across the world through digital platforms?

Keith Papa, Director at architecture practice BDP, commented that the need for physical space was not going away. 'Scientists will still need to work in labs but the question is how you draw in the wider community to innovation hubs? There still needs to be a singular vision around a science cluster' he said, 'and the work that Birmingham University has done in building 'a green heart' through landscaping has helped build a brand that has encouraged people in.'

Measuring over 12 acres, the Green Heart opens up the centre of the campus at the University of Birmingham, for students, staff and the local community to enjoy. The university says that it provides a unique space for performance, while opening up views across the whole campus as envisaged in the 1920's. It creates new pedestrian and cycle routes allowing safe travel and the project has made a sustainable, natural and environmentally friendly landscape for both people and wildlife.

Birmingham Health Partners (BHP) is bringing together the University of Birmingham and NHS research support functions. It is a proven centre for translational medicine and data-enabled clinical testing and evaluation. BHP collaborates with global corporates through to SME's and start-ups and sits at the heart of a large diverse and stable West Midlands population of nearly 6 million. Managing Director Dr John Williams commented during our debate that physical connectivity was just as important as a strong sense of place, but there was no shortage of land to build on in Birmingham:

'The building of HS2 for connectivity has been very important but we also need to enhance our understanding of the importance of the Midlands Engine. Our investment offer needs to look both ways to influence policy makers in London but also what we have in the Midlands. We have land and space here in Birmingham but also a large pool of highly skilled graduates not just in the city but in the wider Midlands. We can offer interconnected science parks but the connectivity needs to be enhanced. There is a paucity of east -west connectivity currently and we need to be seen as a centre connected north, south, east and west. We have this pull and push to attract investors, highly skilled people and businesses and we can connect in world class infrastructure and in the other areas of expertise of transport and energy.'

Costain's Head of Transport, Sue Kerslake then joined the debate revealing that infrastructure projects have not been held back by Covid-19 and that the UK is entering a new era of transport projects being undertaken in innovative ways:

'Covid-19 has been a silver lining for the infrastructure industry and especially now with the UK government's 'Project Speed. We are approaching projects in a more innovative way, it's not just the 'same old' but it is more agile and more decisive and this is across the country and across all modes. The infrastructure of east west connectivity is being approached as a rail project properly now. It is a regeneration project that takes in housing and education too - that's what infrastructure connectivity is all about and we are pointing in the right way on this.'

Sue had a burning question for Stephen which was: 'With all this spinning around because of Covid-19, how can we get infrastructure procurement moving quicker?'

To find out how Stephen answered this question - and for commentary on the wider planning and infrastructure challenges around our science hubs and the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, please read part two of our blog in next week's newsletter and in the upcoming report on this important forum.

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