Spatial disparities in infrastructure availability are wide and often growing across England. In a new report, Stella Erker, Diane Coyle and Andy Westwood explore how Universal Basic Infrastructure could ensure a minimum level of services and amenities for all, and boost national economic growth and quality of life in the UK.
Too many people in the UK live in places where their economic opportunities and quality of life have fallen far behind the more prosperous parts of the country. Whether in terms of well-paying jobs, connectivity (both physical and digital) or community spaces, these places have been ‘left behind’. Voters in neglected areas are increasingly expressing their discontent with the feeling of lacking opportunities and future prospects, described as ‘the revenge of places that don’t matter’. Despite intensified policy discussions on spatial disparities, as reflected in the 2022 Levelling Up White Paper, these fall short of identifying the specific institutions and services places need to turn around their fortunes.
Our new report, Townscapes: A Universal Basic Infrastructure for the UK, contributes to filling this gap. It identifies the physical, public and private infrastructure struggling places need to change their growth trajectories, and contribute to national economic prosperity. It illustrates the dramatic variation in the services and infrastructure in different places in England, the adverse trends in provision, and also how poorly some places in England compare to equivalent places in Germany.
Building on the proposal we outlined earlier in ‘policies for places as well as people’, this report illustrates the wide and often growing spatial disparities in infrastructure availability across England, highlights how this Universal Basic Infrastructure (UBI) might provide people everywhere with a minimum of level of services and amenities, helping foster national economic growth as well as the quality of life in places across the country. It also outlines steps towards implementing the proposal in the UK.
UBI stipulates a per capita formula beneath which services may not fall: core local services and facilities could not be closed or reduced below minimum standards. For instance, this might involve a minimum number of GPs, libraries, police stations and supermarkets for a given population. Its collective provision is a cost-effective and high-impact way of supporting individuals. By design, UBI ensures that resources are invested locally and benefit future generations within those localities. Ultimately, UBI is more redistributive than taxation because public assets are more important to people who own few private assets. We have taken an expansive view of infrastructure to include:
- Physical infrastructure: railway stations; bus stops; and broadband connectivity
- Public/social infrastructure: health services; education facilities; libraries; and municipal parks and gardens
- Private infrastructure: banks and building societies; cash machines; post offices; chemists and pharmacies; convenience stores and independent supermarkets; supermarket chains; museums; gymnasiums, sports halls and leisure centres; swimming pools; cinemas; theatres and concert halls; shopping centres and retail parks; restaurants, pubs, and bars
Spatial inequalities in universal basic infrastructure provision
Drawing on Ordnance Survey Points of Interest data, the analysis of 11 case studies within the North West and East of England revealed three core findings:
1. Substantial disparities exist in infrastructure provision across England
The analysis revealed substantial variations between places, and in particular between richer and poorer places. For example, between 2014 and 2023, there are, on average, 3.81 hospitals per 100,000 population in Cambridge, compared to less than one hospital per 100,000 in Central Bedfordshire, Bolton and Oldham. Similarly, while there are, on average, 13.81 mental health centres and practitioners per 100,000 population in Cambridge during this period, there were less than three in Oldham, Bolton and Blackpool.
Source: Ordnance Survey Points of Interest (2023)
Key infrastructure in England has deteriorated over time
There has been a noticeable decline in access to many elements of UBI in the places we explored. Specifically, the availability of public transport, GP practices, hospitals, mental health centres and practitioners, primary and further education facilities, police stations, banks and building societies, cash machines, post offices, chemists and pharmacies, supermarket chains, museums, swimming pools, cinemas, theatres and concert halls, and shopping centres have declined across most places between 2014 and 2023.
Source: Ordnance Survey Points of Interest (2023)
Infrastructure availability in England compares mostly unfavourably to similar places in Germany
The comparison of struggling places in England to similar places in former East Germany (Bautzen, Cottbus, Erfurt, Halle an der Saale and Rostock) and the Ruhr (Hagen) revealed that Germany generally outperforms England across most indicators. For instance, in 2021, the German places had, on average, 45 mental health providers per 100,000 population, while in England, this was 5 per 100,000 population. Likewise, in 2021, there were 14 further education providers per 100,000 population in the German places compared to two providers in the English places.
Source: Ordnance Survey Points of Interest (2023); Kassenärztliche Bundesvereinigung (2022); Statistische Ämter des Bundes und der Länder (2022)
Investing in universal basic infrastructure to support economic growth in ‘left behind’ and growing places
UBI embodies the commitment to ensuring that every individual has access to a minimum level and standard of basic services and infrastructure, no matter where they live. In this way, UBI is not only a clear strategy through which to prevent ‘postcode lottery’ effects but also serves as a catalyst for economic growth in ‘left behind’ and growing places. In ‘left behind’ places, UBI ensures individuals have access to jobs, education, health, and cultural facilities in the same way that people in thriving places can. Beyond enhancing economic opportunities and the quality of life for individuals, UBI develops new economic activities within these places, contributing to national economic prosperity in the longer term. In growing places, where population numbers and new housing are increasing rapidly, UBI guarantees that infrastructure provision meets the needs of growing communities and local economies. As such, investing in UBI in growing places not only connects people to economic, social and cultural opportunities but also alleviates concerns among existing residents who might otherwise fear an overload of local services and facilities.
Building a framework to implement universal basic infrastructure
Our proposed framework outlines the mechanisms through which different levels of government can implement UBI in the UK:
- Monitoring population growth and setting universal basic infrastructure thresholds: Local authorities and the Government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), under oversight from a coordinating Cabinet Committee, should monitor population forecasts to set thresholds for the provision of different services and facilities.
- Employing a ‘preservation presumption’ in existing places: In existing towns and cities, key services should be preserved and maintained and protected from closures and reductions in services.
- Applying the ‘provision presumption’ in growing places: In ‘new towns’ or major extensions to existing towns and cities, development plans must guarantee a clear link between growing populations and adequate infrastructure provision.
- Holding regular ‘local spending reviews’: UBI necessitates a new obligation for public departments/bodies to consistently evaluate needs and determine priorities in all capital and revenue spending.
- Making a ‘place-based’ focus a required feature of regulatory compliance: UBI necessitates market regulators to incorporate a place-centric approach within regulatory compliance mechanisms and drive appropriate levels of private sector funding for UBI.
- Mapping out existing funding and governance structures for infrastructure: UBI will not necessarily mean completely new funding but rather a prioritisation of how existing funds are allocated and co-ordinated.
- Establishing clear lines of accountability for infrastructure funding and provision: Defining who is responsible for funding and delivering key infrastructure – from local government, combined authority or national departments and agencies – enabling residents to identify the responsible entities for each aspect of infrastructure.
Achieving a minimum level everywhere is clearly an ambitious, but necessary goal. UBI: (i) guarantees access to a minimum level of services in infrastructure in all places; (ii) enhances economic opportunities for individuals and communities and; (iii) meets the demands of rapidly growing communities and local economies. UBI outlines a radically different approach that deliberately takes a place-based – as opposed to an individual – approach. This demands a shift in the way we think about infrastructure, institutions and people, and government’s role in supporting them.
We will continue our work on infrastructure through a new project funded by the British Academy under their Valuing People, Places and Spaces programme, as part of the Academy’s public policy work on social and cultural infrastructure. The project will build on our previous work on social infrastructure and address questions of measurement in relation to both social and cultural infrastructure. It will look at how social and cultural infrastructure is defined and how it can be measured to improve understanding of its purpose, presence, scale and value. The project will also consider strategies for presenting these measurements in an accessible way, allowing for a clear understanding that can inform effective policymaking.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.