Big Vision for Local Authorities is often linked to Big Funding, but we are all keenly aware that since 2010 that funding has got tighter and tighter from Government. This means there is less to spend on ‘Big Vision’ projects and the question 8 years on from the start of austerity is, does that Big Vision thinking still exist or is it extinct?
If you look at the news coming constantly from Government and many organisations like Network Rail, it’s almost gone — the big projects like electrifying the railways and making the biggest improvements in generations are gone, watered down to mere part-electrification with bi-mode trains, a few curve enhancements and that’s if you are lucky because most infrastructure projects are delayed and some cancelled. With railways and transport it is very much a case of the status quo will do when it comes to how we do things, we aren’t even looking at what other countries are doing and have been doing for years and when we have it’s ill thought out — think about maglev, the bullet train or hyperloop even, but even mentioning anything like this is probably unwelcome at the DfT or Network Rail or even within many authorities given most just want to straighten a few curves in the hope of shaving 5 minutes of a 2 hour train journey. HS2 is on the horizon with speed apparently at 250mph that puts it as the fastest train in Europe if it really does get to operate at that speed, consistently. (I have my doubts, TGV can reach this speed and then some, but it doesn’t…)
‘Big Vision’ is generally about infrastructure, it’s about connecting towns and cities, it’s about organising, its about regions. But it doesn’t have to be.
It can be about a borough, it can be about doing social good in an area, it can be about investing heavily in the health of an area by building new health centres, building new affordable homes, it can be about taking control of projects as a council that are key for the economic future of the borough. But more often than not that vision doesn’t feel like it’s there.
I was lucky enough to work with the late Kieran Quinn, Leader of Tameside Council and Chair of the Greater Manchester Pension Fund (GMPF). Kieran was a person who believed in Big Vision projects and always pushed the envelope and looked outside of the box, he looked beyond not only what we did in Tameside, Greater Manchester and the UK but looked across the Globe for solutions that would work right here. Often for Kieran it was the seed of an idea that he would take and bring back from a project, he would then redevelop for Tameside or Greater Manchester and build up.
A few years ago GMPF built a number of homes with local councils providing land at no cost, some plots were easy to build on others not — almost all brownfield — they key of course for any site was the return on sales for the GMPF, and the factor for the council is the council tax and (at the time) the New Homes Bonus, plus people who would work and spend locally. The project was called Matrix homes, the scheme was a success and in the months before Kieran’s untimely passing the GMPF were looking at doing this on a much larger scale across the region, acting as a primary funder working with councils who can’t afford to do this building work. It’s a real win win, and a show of the way Kierans’ Big Vision worked, but not only that but how pension fund money can be used for social good whilst ensuring it’s security for those invested in the fund.
You can read more about the Matrix Homes scheme and whether pension funds are the solution to affordable home building here.
But of course there are other examples of Big Vision still being alive in within Local Authorities, they are just hard to find. In Tameside we are investing over £20m into a new health and wellbeing centre, a new swimming pool and a new 24 hours gym (across the borough), with homes in York now 9.6 times higher than the UK avg York Council are going to started building their own, and in Preston their Big Vision which recently reopened a fantastic indoor market space is about investing and spending with traders locally in the local economy and growing locally — the market is not their first success.
There are of course other Big Vision stories across the UK from local authorities but these seem fairly tight when compared to building potentially thousands of affordable homes across Greater Manchester, or even vastly improving our transport infrastructure.
Today we are in a lucky position to potentially be on the cusp of something great where socially responsible pension funds can ‘pool’ some of their resources and make a real difference across a region. I know that this is in the pipeline in some areas, and I know that it could really make a huge difference — but it needs to not simply be about one pension fund being seen to manage another. It needs to be about these pools shaping a narrative for the regions, whether that’s perhaps the Liverpool-Manchester -Yorkshire region with vast amounts invested in affordable homes and a new transport link along the Manchester Shipping Canal perhaps, or a more adventurous link between Gtr Manchester-Leeds Region to again create better transport and offer a real challenge to the status quo of Network Rail and the Department for Transport. Pension funds working together with local authorities for me is clearly how we can deliver Big Vision projects locally, regionally and potentially nationally.
I don’t think today that the Big Vision has gone, it’s simply hidden.
Of course money is tighter and no doubt partnerships are required, such as those with pension funds and local authorities, but to deliver social good and deliver Big Vision and growth this can only be good.
What I do think is that getting Big Vision up and running, ie with Devolution there is an opportunity for Regions working together which is more challenging, and there may be less ideas floating around after 8 years without talking about them for some, but perhaps it’s time we started thinking big again. Start challenging the norm, and stop accepting that because something has never been done before means it can’t be done — We are a proud union which invented so much, discovered so much, that is big thinking — LA’s should be pushing the envelope.