The Role of Strong Urban Infrastructure in Growing UK Cities

How important are good transport, housing and other infrastructure in cities’ growth prospects? What does this mean to developers and homebuilders?

Where is it in greatest demand, and where will local planning authorities be predisposed to grant changes that allow a conversion from another use (such as agriculture) to property development?

There is a housing shortage almost everywhere in England. The more nuanced investment strategy looks beyond simple demand to find the growth markets, where demand is greater and where buyers will be able to afford new-build properties. Before an investment group will buy land and begin building, they need to know where buyers exist and where local councils are predisposed to development, as evidenced by other infrastructure progress.

A 2011 report from the PwC Public Sector Research Centre, “Making it happen: A roadmap for cities and local public services to achieve outcomes,” advised city planners and leaders to identify and build a competitive position in order to compete in the 21st century. The report authors recommend that building infrastructure – public transport, roads, broadband, ports – be high on the list of things that achieve that competitiveness.

The report adds that other growth factors include social, intellectual, environmental, cultural, political/participatory and Internet communications technology. Manufacturers need roads, rails and ports to ship goods and receive inputs. Information companies need ICT as well as bricks-and-mortar for housing and transporting workers. The service industry needs infra for customers as well as employees.

Who does this well? The PwC report identifies a handful of cities doing a good job on infrastructure measures. They include Aberdeen, Belfast, Newcastle, Nottingham and Swansea Bay. Cities performing “below average” are Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and London.

Another way to look at future-forward planning and growth are those places where green infrastructure is employed. This is where natural systems such as trees, bioswales, green (vegetated) roofs, community forests, parks and wetlands are strategically placed. According to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), these features mitigate air pollution, excessive summer heat and winter freezing, and excessive stormwater and add to the quality of life in a city. DEFRA studied this internationally in 2012 and cites two examples of green infrastructure in the UK that added to the local economy. One was the Glasgow Green Renewal, a park renovation that had a measureable effect on local real estate values and which led to a 16 per cent increase in businesses in the adjacent neighbourhood (far exceeding the 3 per cent experienced citywide). The second UK project was the Canalside development in Birmingham City Centre, a remarkable aesthetic improvement with the conversion of a utilitarian waterway into a tourist asset. The waterway proved to be a catalyst to land investors who built 2,440 residential units, 444 hotel bedrooms, and 16,400 square metres of commercial space in the vicinity.

Building better infra is not a simple matter. Not only do communities and municipalities need to get on board, but so too do investors. The chief investment officer of infrastructure debt at Allianz Global Investors says that much infra investment is dependent on projecting financial returns decades into the future. This can be challenging in that infra valuations might change over time, such as with shifting modes of transportation adding loads in one sector (public transport?) while lightening it in others (fewer car drivers place less demand on surface transportation and amenities?).

What bears noting in both UK green infra programmes: where these public-accessed features were built, private investment followed.

By some definitions, housing is considered infrastructure as well. Of course socialised housing falls into that category, but so too do privately built, privately owned homes. The investor who finds greatest returns from physical assets such as real estate often enters a symbiotic relationship with a city or town – the more homes built, the more attractive a place is to employers, commercial enterprises, and sometimes tourists.

Whether investing in infrastructure, homebuilding or other forms of real assets, the individual is urged to work out a strategy with an independent financial advisor. Tax implications and relative risks need to be discussed in advance.

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