The government's independent advisory committee on infrastructure has warned ministers that devolving greater levels of funding to local areas needs to be a central flank of delivering the levelling-up agenda.
In a week that has seen the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government rebranded to reflect the government's commitment to its manifesto pledge to help so-called “left behind” areas, the National Infrastructure Commission said central control needed to decrease deliver on the agenda.
The commission, which is an independent executive agency of HM Treasury, said that competitive ring-fenced funds such as the Towns Fund should be ditched in favour of streamlined devolved funding. The Towns Fund drew fire from members of parliament's Public Accounts Committee last year over concerns that some of its allocations were politically motivated.
The NIC said that around 15 funding streams for transport should be consolidated into just two: a “dual track” approach of devolved, flexible budgets based on population and local network size; and a targeted scheme to help areas with poor transport connections or where new industries could spring up.
It called for government to support local authorities outside the capital by enabling them to spend up to £6bn per year on transport investment over the next five years, to make sure investment keeps pace with increased investment in centrally managed transport infrastructure.
Infrastructure commissioner Bridget Rosewell said every English town faced a different set of challenges and opportunities and that local leaders were best placed to develop strategies to address them.
“Levelling up cannot be done from Whitehall,” she said. “Competing against other councils for multiple pots of cash creates a focus on the short term, continual uncertainty, and burns up staff time. Local councils need to be empowered to deliver transformational plans for the future and held accountable for doing so.”
The commission said every local transport authority should have a long-term infrastructure strategy for the towns in its area that was supported by a pipeline of projects that linked to 15-year place-based plans for the economic development of towns.
In a nine-point plan to aid the levelling-up agenda set out today, the NIC also called on ministers to make “expert strategic advice and support” available to places that lacked the capacity and capability to develop their own infrastructure strategies and wider place-based plans.
“The government should determine which national organisation or body is best placed to provide that support and ensure it is adequately funded,” it said.
The NIC acknowledged that infrastructure investment alone could not be expected to change economic fortunes, and that a range of areas of policy – notably education and skills – needed to be co-ordinated in growth plans.