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FACE2FACE: Debating infrastructure

James Todhunter, Napthens’ Head of Cumbria, met Simon de Vere, operations director at property asset management and planning consultancy North Associates, part of the WYG group of companies, to discuss efforts being made to improve Cumbria’s infrastructure.

Simon de Vere (SDV): The first thing is to define what we all mean by ‘infrastructure.’ To me, in addition to roads, rail and transport, infrastructure also includes schools, healthcare provision, public open space, recreational/leisure uses and other social facilities and services.

James Todhunter (JT): Agreed. Infrastructure covers a multitude of aspects and I would include connectivity and communications. Cumbria is delivering absolutely vital services such as power to the nation and water to the North West. We need a single, joined up plan for the whole county.

SDV: Cumbria’s economy is changing at a substantial level and pace. Nuclear investment is significant, with the Moorside Project and decommissioning as prime examples of an expanding industry. Non-nuclear businesses also continue to expand and develop within the region, placing ever-increasing demands on local infrastructure.

A key constraint for the delivery of major infrastructure projects in Cumbria, in addition to identifying and securing sufficient funding, is lead-in times for procurement and delivery. Competing schemes need to be prioritised.

JT: The biggest risk in my view is our attitude. We can be introvert and defeatist – citing our geography as a reason why things can’t be done, rather than challenging ourselves to prove they can be done.

Obviously the recent flooding and subsequent closure of major roads and bridges has devastated the county and painfully highlighted the frailty of our road network – something we have all known for a long time.

The closure of the A591 in particular, for almost six months, had a massive impact on families and businesses. There simply isn’t a plan B. Business owners found their income lost as the North Lakes effectively ceased trading as the millions of day/ weekend/holiday visitors couldn’t physically travel through the heart of the Lake District to their shops, hotels and restaurants.

SDV: It’s clear the floods continue to affect many people and businesses in the region, but perhaps the one positive which has arisen from such a tragic event is that it has dramatically increased the focus of central government on the county.

Visits from the Prime Minister, government ministers and senior civil servants from Whitehall have increased attention on the local economy and the challenges it faces. This should be welcomed as it places increased pressure on government to find solutions – doing nothing is no longer an option.

JT: One area of criticism I have heard from business owners is that Cumbria lacks a single voice in leadership. The Northern Powerhouse agenda is really gathering momentum and in key cities such as Manchester and Liverpool there are powerful leaders at the top pushing the agenda hard. There seem to be many different organisations who are looking at the infrastructure – LEP for example – but how can it be co-ordinated for a successful outcome and countywide representation is an important question.

SDV: The responsibility for improvements to local infrastructure must be shared between the public and private sectors, working collaboratively and in partnership.

But the window of opportunity will not remain forever and the region must seize the moment and create robust and compelling cases for securing action, decisions and additional funding to ensure the provision of all types of infrastructure is delivered in a timely and organised manner. Failure to act now whilst the spotlight of government is upon us is likely to result in the region falling short in meeting its objectives for significant and sustainable economic growth.