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Universal basic infrastructure: how could it support growth across the UK?

The UK’s public services are stretched thin across the country, serving higher numbers of people with lower budgets. Introducing minimum standards and levels of infrastructure and services could help to reduce local and regional inequalities and ensure that all places prosper.

Everyone should have access to a minimum level and standard of public services, local amenities and transport and communications networks, no matter where they live. The idea of ‘universal basic infrastructure’ (UBI) is that all different kinds of places – and the people in them – can best fulfil their economic potential.

Such a platform of infrastructure and services can help the UK to address both its deep levels of local and regional inequality, but also chronic problems of housing supply.

UBI would stipulate a per capita formula beneath which services may not fall: specifically, core local services and facilities could not be closed or reduced below minimum standards. This might involve a minimum number of GPs or police officers for a given population. It would also apply to adequate levels of childcare, schools, a bank or post office, local pharmacies and supermarkets, and a library and further education college if the area were of sufficient size.

Unlike ‘universal basic income’, this is a deliberately collective approach to providing essential services, without which people and places are less likely to prosper. It should apply equally in struggling, ‘left behind’ places as well as in those that are expanding with new housing.

In the former, UBI can provide a safety net of services that allows places to develop new economic activities and prevent further decline. By building services and infrastructure in places as they grow, UBI will attract more residents and allay fears of existing residents who might otherwise oppose such development.

As the 2021 census shows, towns like Bedford and Leighton Buzzard have grown by 16% and 18% over the previous decade – around three times the national average. But local services have become more stretched and difficult to access. For example, Bedfordshire has the lowest rate of police officers attending burglaries in England (38.4%), with 77% of cases unresolved.

There are similar problems with access to local health services. In Leighton Buzzard, four out of five GP surgeries had an above average caseload, with the busiest one handling over 6,000 patients. At the same time in Bedford, 16 out of 18 surgeries had an above average caseload, with the highest at 10,002 patients. In Oldham, 19 out of 30 GP practices had caseloads over the national average, with the two highest at over 12,000 and 7,000.

In the most deprived places, 62% of GP practices see over 25 patients per day – the safe limit recommended by the British Medical Association – and of these, 28% saw more than 35.

There has also been a steep decline in bus services throughout England. In 2020, the National Audit Office found a 10% overall decline in bus use between 2010/11 and 2018/19, and a 38% reduction in local authority funding. In 2018/19, 112 million miles were travelled on local authority-supported bus routes, down from 243 million in 2010/11.

Similar patterns can be seen across other services and infrastructure, including for schools, colleges, parks, pharmacies and dentists. Overall, the biggest gaps tend to be in the most deprived places and in those growing rapidly with new housing developments.

Tackling these gaps will help to address high levels of local inequality and also to meet the needs of fast expanding communities and local economies. In both cases, it provides a platform on which places can thrive and people can build their working lives – enabling economic growth and ‘good jobs everywhere’.

Achieving it is a job for both local and national government, working together to make sure that everywhere gets and keeps a minimum level of services and infrastructure. They are the foundations on which people can then build livelihoods and all types of places can prosper.

Adopting UBI could be transformational for local economies, but also for our politics too, restoring trust in a state that is committed to all the places in which people live. With UBI, no one is forgotten and no places are overlooked or ignored. But this demands a shift in the way we think about infrastructure, institutions and people – and about the government’s role in supporting them.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Diane Coyle
  • Stella Erker
  • Andy Westwood
Authors: Diane Coyle, Stella Erker and Andy Westwood
Image: Nickbeer on iStock
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