Out of sight but not out of mind: why we need a better approach to planning utility infrastructure

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Investment in London’s utility networks – energy, water and digital – will be essential to help the city recover from COVID-19, achieve net zero carbon, increase resilience to risk, and support new development.

Planners have a key role to play in coordinating this investment to ensure that the right solutions are delivered at the right time. Plan-making creates the potential for a holistic approach, looking at the needs of a particular area and preparing delivery plans to align infrastructure with growth and regeneration. Through development management, planners can also help to coordinate utilities with the phasing of development, and integrate new assets with wider place-making outcomes, such as the design of public realm.

Faced with the challenges of accommodating significant growth, a number of London Boroughs have found innovative ways to coordinate utility infrastructure: setting up dedicated teams and testing new approaches to collaboration. The benefits have been realised in many of London’s key growth areas, including Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea, Kings Cross Central, Elephant and Castle, the Isle of Dogs and South Poplar and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

However, this process can be challenging. A lack of accessible data can mean that local authorities often struggle to understand their infrastructure needs, while utility companies can be reluctant to invest until development has a very high degree of certainty. There is a lack of skills and resources for infrastructure planning in local government, and a reliance on competitive bidding for infrastructure funds from different Whitehall departments.

While utilities are hidden away, a lack of early and integrated planning can create real problems. Uncoordinated streetworks causes disruption, congestion and pollution as different contractors repeatedly dig up the same stretch of road to lay pipes and cables. Long lead-in times for infrastructure can delay development and create unexpected costs. And looking at utilities in isolation from other aspects of the built environment can miss vital opportunities to identify more sustainable and resilient approaches, and perpetuate the use of carbon-intensive technologies.

Infrastructure governance – who calls the shots?

For transport infrastructure, the Mayor of London can (through TfL) direct investment to projects that achieve multiple benefits: unlocking development and supporting regeneration while improving health, tackling pollution and cutting carbon. But London, like other cities, cannot replicate this strategic approach for utilities. Following the privatisation that occurred during the 1980s, utility networks have been managed by for-profit companies which operate under a regulatory framework set by central government. This disconnected utilities from spatial planning, a subject we explored in our 2019 paper: A Smarter Approach to Infrastructure Planning.

To overcome these barriers, the Mayor established a dedicated Infrastructure Team at the GLA, tasked with supporting the coordination of utilities during planning and delivery. Since 2018, they have piloted a range of initiatives, creating a digital map of current and future infrastructure, and providing support to high-growth boroughs. These interventions have been welcomed by developers and utility companies, who all stand to benefit from a more coordinated approach.

In 2019, we partnered with the Infrastructure Team to develop a handbook which draws on best practice from across London, and describes how planners can coordinate utility infrastructure under the current system. But we know that wider changes are needed, so have recently published a policy paper which sets out four practical recommendations to government. These include:

  • Supporting the creation of a new digital evidence base for London’s utilities, to speed up local plan-making and support development
  • Updating the regulatory framework for utilities to encourage earlier and more effective collaboration with planning authorities
  • Recognising the role of local and strategic planning in delivering national infrastructure objectives on the ground, like decarbonisation
  • Providing stable long-term funding for infrastructure planning and coordination

We are calling on the government to implement these changes through reform to the planning system, and the upcoming National Infrastructure Strategy. By taking these practical steps, we can ensure that London, and cities across England, have the right powers and tools to plan critical infrastructure.

James Harris is the Policy and Networks Manager at the Royal Town Planning Institute, and works on infrastructure, devolution, technology and strategic planning.

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