17 August 2020

Every idea has a moment in time when it first surfaces. 

It was the autumn of 2014 when Cllrs Jim Harker, Ian Hudspeth and Martin Tett conceived the idea of a grouping of like-minded political and business leaders coming together in a strategic partnership: an idea that would quickly become England's Economic Heartland.

At the heart of their initiative was the recognition that:

  • Strategic infrastructure issues (and solutions) extend beyond any one single area
  • Issues that are common to one or more areas can benefit from a co-ordinated response and use of shared resources
  • There was a requirement for stronger alignment of activities and investment to achieve a shared ambition

The founders' vision for England's Economic Heartland focused on the need to co-ordinate activity on strategic infrastructure in order to realise the region's economic potential, and to do so in a way that delivered net environmental gain. 

They understood the importance of aligning investment in strategic transport infrastructure, digital infrastructure and utility infrastructure to a common objective.  By providing a unified voice on matters of strategic importance the founders' vision offered the region the strategic leadership that would benefit residents, communities and businesses alike.

It was a vision that chimed with many and quickly saw a wider group of political and business leaders join the partnership: EEH now extends from Swindon in the west across to Cambridgeshire in the east and, from Northamptonshire in the north down to Hertfordshire in the south.

In many ways EEH's initial work laid the foundations on which the National Infrastructure Commission built when it was tasked by Government to look at how to realise the economic potential of the region.

The Commission reaffirmed the region's economic significance to the UK, and warned that its continued success could not be taken for granted.  It highlighted how the region's network of world-class institutions and research centres offers the opportunity to harness science and technology based innovation to deliver long-term sustainable growth.

Six years on the guiding principles that led to the establishment of EEH remain just as valid.  Our work in developing the Draft Transport Strategy is a reminder of the importance of 'joining up' thinking on strategic infrastructure. Our technical studies demonstrate how decarbonisation of our transport system requires a co-ordinated approach to investment in transport, digital and utility infrastructure.

More recently the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded all of us that there is nothing fixed about the need to travel or the way we travel. The increased use of remote/flexible working, the continued rise in e-commerce both illustrate how travel demand continues to change at pace.

Doing things differently is at the heart of our Draft Transport Strategy.  It sets out the framework that will harness the Heartland's ability to innovate and enable the new business models that will enable a green economic recovery.

The EEH founders' set out a vision of how connectivity – both physical and virtual – needs to be at the heart of our economy; of the importance of joining up thinking on strategic infrastructure; of how harnessing the economic potential of the region creates the opportunity to deliver net environmental gain.

Timing they say, is everything: it takes time to lay down the foundations for collaborative working. 

Six years on from that initial conversation the Draft Transport Strategy represents a significant milestone for EEH and affirmation of the founders' vision.

There remains much to be done if we are to realise their vision on the ground.  Establishing EEH as a statutory Sub-national Transport Body is one of the next steps on our continuing journey: bringing forward ideas that will see the region's communities and businesses  is supported by digitally enabled infrastructure is another, whilst at the same time working with the owners and operators of our utility infrastructure another.

We have a moment in time to shape the future: to effect the change that individually and collectively we seek for our communities.  As an established strategic partnership focused on making a difference, EEH continues to be central to achieving that change.

 Martin Tugwell is EEH Programme Director