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Last modified: 26 July 2017

Defending the zombie graph

A few years ago the UK government started releasing a table of planned future infrastructure investments. It’s called the National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) and you can download it today.

IPPR North took the table, added up the total planned investment for those schemes involving at least some public money for each UK region, drew two graphs, and wrote some press releases.

The press releases are online . The graphs are in their report Paying for our Progress and I’ve copied them below.

You’ve probably seen, or read figures based, on IPPR North’s work. The one on the right, focusing on transport investment, gets the most attention.

If you live outside of South-East England the data probably confirms what you already feel; that you struggle with poor infrastructure and low investment while money is invested in London despite that region’s infrastructure already being fantastic. There is a lot of understandable anger and frustration in the North when good local schemes are blocked, cancelled, or denied funding by central government because “there’s no money”, while poorer value schemes in London go ahead. The graph backs up that feeling.

But a lot of people who study regional geography in the UK hate the graph. They get especially angry at a new stylised version that’s being shared on twitter and facebook.

This new version comes from Statista, a company whose UK office is in London, but who seem to have made the visualisation in Hamburg. I tracked down the source from April 2014 . It clearly uses IPPR North’s analysis, but cites the original source, not IPPR North. This is the biggest problem with the graph.

But there are some additional problems. The important caveat that it includes private sector investment if that investment was accompanied by public sector investment is just about still there, but almost fatally weakened. The graph is from 2014. It gets the UK’s regions wrong.

When people send this graph my way I tend to respond by linking to IPPR North’s work.

But for many people that’s not good enough. The graphs I’ve included above are zombie graphs and the world would be better if the data and the graphs went away completely. They think that it pollutes debate. They suggest that people like me should condone it.

I do not agree.

The zombie graph

The problems that people have with the graph and the data that it shows seem to be that,

  1. The general public misunderstands what the data is showing.
  2. The figures group together public investment and private investment.
  3. The figures look at what is currently planned to be spent when we know that not all plans will proceed.
  4. We have data on what’s been spent in the past by the UK government on transport in each region. We should use that.
  5. The figures compare London, both a city and a region of the UK, with regions of the UK such as Yorkshire.

I’ll respond to each point,

1. IPPR North’s methodology is sound and they explain it clearly.

IPPR North explain their methodology clearly and correctly in their papers, press releases, and media appearances. Ed Cox has responded to criticism almost instantly and IPPR North regularly include other measures alongside these figures to give an alternative view.

Expecting IPPR North to police the use of their statistics is bizarre. I’ve never heard it asked of anyone else and it seems an especially onerous request given the difficulty that bodies outside of London have in securing access to the national media.

2. IPPR North’s analysis is the best possible given flaws in the national infrastructure pipeline dataset.

Some investment in infrastructure is completely privately funded: Manchester Airport’s £1bn of investment is an example. Some investment in infrastructure is completely publicly funded: the £128m extension of the Midland Metro in Birmingham is an example. Some investment in infrastructure is a combination of both: the £600m Mersey Gateway Bridge, with public funding making up £211m of the total investment is an example.

Or at least those are three examples that the NIP gives.

The problem is that the NIP is obviously wrong (to general understanding) in how it splits private and public funding. The Northern Line Extension is widely reported as being privately funded and yet it appears in the NIP as fully publicly-funded at £940m. In light of this, and many other examples, the only safe option in analysing the investment data is to do what IPPR North have done and combine both public and private investment, and then be clear about it. That's what they do.

3. We cannot see into the future, but nor can we look back into the past.

I don’t understand criticism of IPPR North’s work that focuses on the fact that the NIP looks at future spending, not past spending. It’s called a pipeline for a reason. And yes, some projects will be cancelled or altered.

But no, that isn’t a good reason to ignore the NIP data. The best time to influence spending decisions is before they’re made.

4. Mixing operating subsidy and investment is a far worse crime than the zombie graph.

A proposed alternative to IPPR North’s approach is to take data from the Country and Regional Analysis dataset (formerly PESA) and look at past spending. IPPR North have been doing this for ages. It’s in their most recent press release on the issue. It shows that transport spending in London was £680/head last year, compared to £282/head in the North.

That’s still a big gap, but a much smaller one than the gap in investment. Critics of the “zombie graph” push these figures strongly. And yet I think that they are a far worse crime against public understanding than IPPR North’s work.

The CRA figures look at total net spending on transport; the combination of operating subsidies and capital investment.

But we know that half-empty deregulated buses in Bradford with few passengers but pensioners require a lot of subsidy to run. We know that unreliable short diesel pacer trains require a lot of subsidy to run on old slow unelectrified railways. We know that regulated London buses as part of an integrated transport system connecting to newly refurbished tube lines and cross-city lines with fast, modern, electric trains require less subsidy to run.

People like me in the North aren’t arguing that London’s fantastic public transport system isn’t now so good that it requires almost no operating subsidy. What we’re arguing for is a similar level of capital investment to what London has enjoyed for at least the past 30 years. We want to enjoy fast efficient services that require less operating subsidy too. And with schemes like Manchester Airport and Kirkstall Forge we have already proved that we can lever in private sector investment on the back of public sector investment where the accumulated capital already exists. That is the whole point of IPPR North’s request for catch-up cash.

It astonishes me that people who dislike the zombie graph see fewer problems with the CRA data.

 

And it gets even worse.

In using net spend per passenger kilometre in response to complaints about accumulated and future capital investment the Mayor of London misunderstands the relationship between investment and subsidy. This is worse for public understanding than the zombie graph.

5. Okay is better than perfect, if the alternative is bad.

Last but not least. I agree that the data isn’t perfect. Yorkshire is not London.

I would love to compare transport investment over the past thirty years in London with investment in Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds. I can’t. We just don’t have the data.

I would love to compare the costs of the differences in regulatory regimes between London and England’s other large cities. I can’t. We just don’t have the data.

Not having the data is why I work my arse off at ODILeeds and imactivate and why I write blogs like this. We want more, better data. We also want a fair share of the funding needed to analyse it. Currently we have neither, but we’re trying.

Until we succeed, we all need to be asking ourselves whether the current lack of good data is a reason to stick with our current methods? I don’t think it is.

In other blogs I’ve explained that the UK’s current approach to assigning transport funding is deeply flawed and that the approach to considering how we might improve those methods is just as bad. I’m not claiming that the alternatives are perfect, but I do think that they’re better.

When our current best method for looking at whether transport investment improves economic growth cannot even consider the UK’s second city it is clear to me that something is broken. The zombie graph is a step in the right direction to fixing things and I suspect that I am no more betrayed by my passions and preferences in thinking so than you are if you disagree.

 

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