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New models for sustainable transport infrastructure in cities

Above: Henri Murison, Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, speaking at Future Cities Forum's 'Infrastructure, construction and energy' discussion hosted by RPC in London

In the second part of Future Cities Forum's 'Infrastructure, construction and energy' event report, Northern Powerhouse Partnership, West Yorkshire Combined Authority, EDF Renewables and BDP discussed the benefits and drawbacks from diverted HS2 funds for local transport strategies, the complexities of rolling out new city electric bus programmes and the importance of retrofitting older transport infrastructure.

Henri Murison, Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, compared the UK approach to large scale infrastructure development, to similar schemes carried out in Europe:

'My reflection on HS2, especially if you look at the Chiltern Hills, is that we have managed to upset an awful lot of people in close proximity to the line, spending a lot of money on very extreme measures without providing any of the benefits..

'Virtually the whole length of London to Birmingham you will not see much daylight, and very little of the English countryside. I always have a bit of a giggle when people try to compare the cost of HS2 delivery to the TGV in France because it is an entirely different product. The French solution is that if you - as a home owner - don't like being near the railway, then they buy the house off you and you can disappear. They do not spend a disproportionate amount of money on trying to mitigate the impact of the railway.

'In terms of the question, why do we need HS2, what are the benefits, and what is the deficit in not having it, the sitting mayors in the West Midlands and in Manchester will tell you there is a huge deficit in not being able to connect those cities when you do not have HS2 phase 2. The east side of the country will feel the same way about the HS2 eastern leg which would connect cities like Derby and Nottingham with Leeds. They are in close proximity but are not part of the same functional labour market.

'The great misunderstanding of HS2 is that it is not about getting to London slightly more quickly, as that is the least important reason for delivering the project. The fact that the connectivity between our regional cities is so poor is a very good reason for building Northern Powerhouse Rail. Effectively, a big chunk of the HS2 leg between Birmingham and Manchester is still being built as you need that to get from Manchester Airport across to Liverpool and also eastwards.

'However we are leaving a stretch of line in what is one of the most congested parts of the railway - Crewe to Manchester and Crewe to Birmingham. We are ready to start work on that. The challenge we have is that we do not have an alternative solution, for getting people more efficiently and more sustainably between London and Birmingham.

Henri was asked what will sort the bus problem across cities outside London. He responded:

'What will solve the bus problem in northern cities over the next two years is a revenue subsidy to help run a bus franchising model. That will not come from HS2 savings. Every penny that comes for extending the (regional) bus fare scheme comes from the DfT budget. My reflection is that we are now in quite a difficult space where the government has a notional alternative to HS2 but that isn't really thought through as it doesn't have an answer to north west mainline capacity issues.

'I am certainly not against giving city mayors a bigger slice of the transport budget. If you compare us to other countries we are in a strange place. If a French city mayor wants to build a tram network they can via revenue from locally devolved income tax. You don't need to wait cap-in-hand for your government to cancel a major infrastructure project so you can have the funds to do it. Most civilised western countries have transport systems within city regions and between them. The idea that you have choose between them, is the 'pits' in terms of policy making!'

Above: Leeds City Square viewed from Leeds railway station - prior to road closures in May 2022

Helen Ellerton, Head of Transport Policy at West Yorkshire Combined Authority, joined the debate, saying that rail development across the North is a real challenge:

'Leeds has been seen historically as a 'car city' but we are moving away from that now. In front of Leeds Station in City Square we have closed the roads so we have a fully pedestrianised area. This is a significant improvement and has improved access to the station. HS2 would have solved some of the pedestrian and train capacity issues on the south side, however, Leeds needs a completely different configuration of the station. Network North does not articulate any of this but goes back to an original plan for the Trans-Pennine route upgrade with connections to Manchester and government will continue to champion that upgrade which is great.

'What Network North is not doing is improving the end arrival and departure points at Manchester and Leeds . It's improving the 'pipe' but not the 'exits'. The wider transport benefits are not there. We are running on very old diesel trains still despite all the network infrastructure upgrades. We did take a decision in March to franchise our bus network, which is a significant move. It is a step change - it's a very different funding approach based on revenue as opposed to capital. We will see how government supports that. The benefits of devolution are shown there as we can create on own funding opportunities, but it does not get us through this step-change.

'By 2028 we hope to have spades in the ground for a new mass transit system. The challenge (for West Yorkshire) is that the government says the scheme is coming forward but there is no dedicated funding plan. Our own funding plan is our capital infrastructure pot which is taken from the city regional sustainable transport fund - which other cities are all getting, so there is no other funding. The issue goes back to the whole HS2 re-distribution question on what the north is getting and how the government is badging that. They propose we use our capital coming through other routes. Therefore the challenge is a pay-off. Do we load all our money onto mass transit? If we do the mass transit we cannot do and afford bus priority improvements across the wider West Yorkshire region as well. The funding model becomes an either or situation which does not provide you with the quality of an integrated transport network which we really need and you only get a piece-meal approach.'

EDF Renewables' Head of Private Wire, Marianne Costigan commented on how bus networks can be made more sustainable in cities and the right model to follow:

'There are now new shiny comfortable buses which are all electric in the centre of Oxford. How did this come about? It's a long, long story. Some of this relates to the issues raised today over the tensions between national and local infrastructure planning and benefits. I was working for Pivot Power, a company which develops and operates grid scale battery storage projects, when it was acquired by EDF Renewables. Energy storage - battery storage - to help balance the Grid is not a pretty thing but often these containers are put next to National Grid electricity sub-stations. As a local you might object to them but they are solving a national problem in balancing the supply of excess offshore wind and demand.

'At a local level our battery storage project actually did something for the city of Oxford, because we had a connection to the transmission network which is a rare and wonderful thing. Think of it like a motorway exit in that you don't build these for a few buses. You might build them for an industrial estate not for a few houses. We made secondary use of it by building a private wire up to the main road then down to the Redbridge park-and-ride, stopping at the bus depot on the way. We did it partly with our own investment but also in collaboration with Oxford. Innovate UK supported the project as battery storage for national benefit but also local provision for EV charging. At the time there was a visionary director at the Oxford Bus Company who had 20 old buses that needed replacing with electric vehicles to comply with the zero emission zone in the centre of Oxford .

'The bus part was a bit challenging because the bus companies also had to invest and they needed more bus priority lanes because of congestion in the city (to avoid buying more buses). This had to involve the council on planning as the lanes would have an impact on local residents. Happily this was all achieved, and although we had to lay cables and dig up roads the result is fantastic, and could be rolled out to help other cities.'

Above: Oxford Bus Company electric bus outside the Queen's College on the High in March 2024

BDP Architect Director Tom Hewitt, who works on large scale regeneration projects, joined the discussion to describe how bus stations can be re-modelled cost-effectively and so that can serve the community as real places in their own right:

'I think bus stations are much maligned and over-looked. We have heard already about the need to encourage people to use buses more. The commercial and sustainable logics we use as architects can come into play here. We were presented with an opportunity at Leicester where the council was looking for a way to join up the two bus stations that serve the city. they were looking to knock down and re-build one of the two bus stations.

' We said 'why are you thinking of knocking it down as you will be putting it up again on the same site. Why don't you just simplify it, extend it but retain all your ground-works and drainage which would save you £3 million. You could then put the savings into other projects. We know you have funding for EVs so we can find a place for that on the roof of St Margaret's bus station. Fundamentally, between those two parameters you are able to achieve a net zero carbon outcome. That was not the intention but it was commercially expedient.

'It was a well conceived plan by the local authority, part of a connections strategy to connect the two bus stations. I don't understand why more isn't done to join up the potential on other bus stations around the country. Coventry for instance, is wrestling with the challenge of creating a mass transit system - which may take years to deliver. Why not invest in what you have and make it better? It's quicker, it's cost effective and it can be delivered quickly. It can address sustainability as well as helping communities. While macro projects are important there is a lot that could be done on a local level - as has been shown in Oxford for instance, which Marianne has described.'

Future Cities Forum was extremely grateful for the contribution of our guests. Watch out for our third report on this important forum discussion, to be published shortly.

Below: CGI from BDP of the exterior of the re-redesigned St. Margaret's Bus Station


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