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Critical City Infrastructure: Greater Manchester

In my capacity as the chair of the Greater Manchester Infrastructure Advisory Group (GMIAG), I have been asked to provide my view of critical city infrastructure and its role in supporting the GM Spatial Framework (GMSF).

Here I would like to focus on our often unseen physical infrastructure including energy, communication, water and drainage.

A well designed and operated infrastructure provides the arteries that feed the organs of our urban and rural areas. This is even more critical in our cities which are constantly under pressure to grow and develop whilst relying on infrastructure that is already operating at capacity and/or in a poor condition.

The Manchester 2015 Boxing Day flood is an example of how dependent we are on our city infrastructure and how vulnerable it can be at times.

The GMSF has identified that Greater Manchester is likely to need an additional 230,000 homes by 2035. Clearly, this growth in population and associated economic development will require a robust infrastructure strategy to realise Greater Manchester’s ambitions.

The repair, renewal or expansion of infrastructure can be costly, disruptive and unpopular with little visible to show for it once completed. People will complain about disruption but when infrastructure fails there are many more complaints and sometimes fears. So I am afraid that some disruption is inevitable although its delivery should be carefully co-ordinated to minimise inconvenience. 

Greater Manchester recognises the importance of infrastructure and the Local Enterprise Partnership established the GMIAG about 18 months ago following a preliminary study into the challenge of delivering the necessary infrastructure to support the GMSF. 

The identification, planning, design, delivery and operation of critical city infrastructure is challenging for a number of reasons. Infrastructure is owned and operated by numerous private sector companies, many of whom are required to satisfy the needs of their shareholders and the financial markets. These companies are regulated by a number of organisations such as Ofgen and Ofwat.

These utility companies or Infrastructure Providers, as I prefer to call them, plan their future capital and maintenance work over different time horizons. These infrastructure investment plans need to be approved by their regulators.

Our cities and towns do not have governance over the infrastructure that is critical to their success and survival.  Whilst Infrastructure Providers do collaborate with Greater Manchester  when formulating their investment plans, this is not a particularly rigorous process and varies depending on the particular Infrastructure Provider and its regulatory environment.

The good news is that relationships between GM and its Infrastructure Providers are strong, which is evidenced by everyone’s willingness to support the GMIAG.

The GMIAG brings together senior representatives of the Infrastructure Providers who operate within Greater Manchester to share ideas and to help better co-ordinate future plans on infrastructure needs and in particular to support the GMSF.

Its first major deliverable was the production of a a digital infrastructure map, this map can be viewed at Some of the information has restricted access because of the sensitive nature of some of the more critical infrastructure. We believe that this is the first time that such an infrastructure map has been created for a city region the UK.

The GMIAG has also been working with the Future Cities Catapult to develop a new decision making tool, utilising the GM infrastructure map, to focus infrastructure investment to those areas which are likely to grow and need support over the next couple of decades. If the tool is successful it can be made available to other cities.

The ideal situation is that infrastructure is provided either in time for or ahead of development need. However, this is complicated by the regulators who, in their capacity of making sure that Infrastructure Providers give their customers a value for money service, do not allow Infrastructure Providers to “invest ahead of needs”.

The GMIAG and others are keen to persuade the regulators that such a restriction is resulting in some development either being unreasonably delayed or not proceeding. This is due in part to the current requirement that the first 'developer' is required to pay for the provision of new infrastructure.

This is a complex area which I cannot adequately covered here. However, the planning and delivery of critical city infrastructure in a timely and cost effective manner is something which must be in everyone’s short and long term interest.

A future challenge, in addition to having a resilient infrastructure, is to make our infrastructure more sustainable and smarter. This requires a much better approach to understanding and delivering a more integrated and interdependent infrastructure system. The big question is who should be responsible of doing this?

In my opinion it is our cities and towns that have the most to lose  if the critical infrastructure that supports them is inadequate or fails, therefore, our cities need to take a lead role in making sure they have the right infrastructure.

They also have the most to gain from efficient, economic and low carbon utilities, Greater Manchester recognises this.

We cannot afford to be taking critical city infrastructure for granted, we need to prepare well thought out and co-ordinated investment and delivery plans which support growth and a smart city approach to  provide Greater Manchester with the future resilience it needs to support the GMSF and other developments.

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Main image: Rochdale Canal by Flickr User Buh Snarf.