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Can Devolution deliver?

25 January 2016 - Rosemary French

I grew up close to the Forth Road Bridge and I remember crossing the bridge on the day it opened in 1964. I actually rather preferred the ferry crossing we used to use to reach Fife, which immediately closed. I also remember canoeing under the massive arches of both the rail and road bridges as a teenager. So I find myself checking up on what is going on up there while I enjoy the far better weather in the South. The new Queensferry Crossing is currently being built and there is a great video of the new bridge’s progress which fascinates me not just because the engineering is so amazing but because I wish we had a fraction of the transport infrastructure projects here that exist in Scotland.

Since Scottish Devolution they have also built a new 30 mile railway with seven new stations from the Borders to Edinburgh.  It has just been opened by the Queen and has already had 125,000 passenger journeys in just its first month of operation.  That’s a lot when there are only 115,000 people in the Scottish Borders!

And it is not just Scotland, it is the north too.   My second home is Nottingham and my visit back there this summer amazed me when I discovered the newly finished dual carriageway from the M1 to Nottingham town, alongside the iconic cooling towers for the Power Station.   What a wonderful new road, easing congestion for businesses and commuters alike.  I won’t linger on the HS2 proposals to the North which will save, I think, 15 minutes from each journey. 15 minutes!  Crikey is it really worth it?

It is not as though our South East Councils, our Local Enterprise Partnerships and our business organisations are not trying their hardest to make the case.  And have been for the 15 years I have been involved in economic development in Surrey and Sussex.   But we have not got very far.  The only big project was the Hindhead Tunnel which made a huge difference to the A3 flow through that pinch point but has just created further problems further up the A3 around Guildford.  Why can we not deliver projects across the whole instead of in part?   In the meantime, Sussex is blighted with the A27 which again is dualled in parts but not along its length. 

So I started to consider the Devolution proposals currently being put forward by County Councils grouping together like the ‘3SC’ for Surrey, East and West Sussex.   If successful, will it actually deliver the infrastructure projects that we so desperately need?   Personally I think it stands one of our best chances, if government will just take notice. 

Their proposal makes an early statement which I am sure government does not currently comprehend. The combined GVA of Sussex and Surrey is £63.5 billion, which is bigger than both the whole of Wales (£52 billion) and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (£56 billion).

3SC will collaborate to attract investment in a long-term infrastructure strategy, to increase housing delivery and land supply, and unlocking employment land. These are bold ambitions and this proposal from three such large authorities supported by all the district and borough councils, pulling together the thinking, the planning, to goals and the funding across three councils to benefit all three must be achievable.

George Osborne has committed to spending £100bn on new UK infrastructure over the lifetime of the current Parliament.  But so far, it is in the North and London with HS2, cross Pennine connectivity and Crossrail 2.   Where is the expenditure promised in the South?

(First appeared in the South East Business magazine in December, 2015.

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