Op Ed
The National Infrastructure Strategy – better, greener, and faster?

By - World Infrastructure Journal

“Better, greener, faster” is the motto of the long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy published last week alongside the Chancellor’s latest Comprehensive Spending Review. Over two years on from when the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) first made its recommendations, the Government finally published its response, setting out its vision for the future of the UK’s infrastructure.

With broad-sweeping aims of “levelling up” and not-too-distant goals of net-zero and full-fibre connectivity, does this report have the right strategy?

 A united kingdom?

The term regional powerhouse has long haunted the political landscape, with grand claims of improving economies seen as left behind. Yet, with a seemingly growing north-south divide and the capital's leading role in the planned economic recovery, it would not be too obtuse to suggest the powerhouse remains firmly in London.

This Infrastructure Strategy, however, aims to change that by “making cities the engines of growth and revitalising towns. ” This includes increasing rural network connectivity to 95 per cent, creating jobs in the most deprived areas through the Free Ports Programme, revitalising 100 town centres through the Towns Fund and creating green growth clusters in traditionally industrial areas. The specifics of these areas are yet to be known but could follow on from the industrial hubs of renewable energy that have significantly improved local economies across the UK.

National infrastructure improvements rely heavily on levelling up the connections between communities yet travel outside of London remains woefully inadequate. The regular criticisms of costly and inefficient train networks, infrequent bus services and dilapidated roads that most of the nation face are not going away just yet. However, with greater investment, the out-of-date infrastructure underpinning these services can travel into the modern world.

The Government has set out £4.2 billion for intra-city transport outside of London, an integrated rail plan to improve trains in the Midlands and the North, £27 billion for strategic roads, and the Union Connectivity Review which aims to increase the physical links of the four nations of the UK.

These travel routes may also be useful for the 22,000 civil servants who are to be moved out of London and the south-east by 2030 - although it is still unclear which departments will be leaving and exactly where they will be heading. This is part of a wider devolution settlement in the strategy.

The highly anticipated UK Infrastructure Bank will also be based in the North of England and will look to co-invest with the private sector on infrastructure projects. While the full terms and regulations of this institution will be set out in 2021, it seems the financer will be able to lend to local authorities for key projects and provide them with advice.

This could prove a useful resource for cash-strapped councils, but it remains questionable if many will simply not want to take the risk of borrowing when their finances have already been hit so hard by the pandemic. A levelling-up plan based on local authorities borrowing is very unlikely to lead to the rapid revolution of infrastructure that so many areas need to meet the demands of the future.

A greener future?

Following on from the announcement that petrol and diesel vehicles will no longer be sold from 2030, the discussion on electric and renewable infrastructure has been supercharged. Decarbonising the economy and adapting to the threats of climate change are rapidly rising on the agenda ahead of COP26 next year in Glasgow and show no signs of slowing down.

The strategy sets out “significant investment” in offshore wind and modern ports which will be helped by the world’s largest windfarm coming to the shores of Yorkshire. This investment comes alongside £525 million in nuclear, £1.3 billion in electric charging infrastructure, £1 billion for carbon capture and the large-scale rollout of existing heat decarbonisation technology. For those 336,000 properties also at risk from climate-related threats such as extreme flooding or cliff erosion, £5.2 billion is set to be invested by 2027 for their protection.

Sustainability is also at the heart of new housing developments moving forward with large-scale reform of environmental regulations taking place. This aims to create a quicker and simpler framework for assessing environmental impact to ensure the environment is protected at every stage.

Simultaneously, the delivery of housing is set to be “accelerated and improved” by transforming the construction sector to make it “more productive, more sustainable and more internationally competitive. ” The strategy sets out the aim of accelerating investment and skills to ensure the necessary infrastructure is delivered faster. However, this is at odds with the decision to place more emphasis on “quality design and better monitoring and evaluation” which many have suggested will simply increase delays on projects. It can only be hoped that "better, greener, faster" is not a pick-and-mix for developments.

The industry response

The long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy came as a monumental moment for those key stakeholders in the infrastructure sector.

The Institution of Civil Engineers called for "more clarity on how the Government intends to deliver on UK net-zero commitments” but added that “the publication of the NIS should still be considered as an important moment for the infrastructure sector. ”The most prominent reaction was that of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) whose recommendations were the catalyst for the report. Sir John Armitt, Chair of the NIC said:

“Publication of the UK’s first-ever National Infrastructure Strategy is an important moment, given the vital role infrastructure can play in supporting economic recovery and growth across the whole of the UK, as well as tackling climate change. We are pleased to see the Government’s strategy responds closely to our own independent assessment of the country’s infrastructure needs and how to address them.

"We are particularly pleased that government has accepted the Commission’s proposal for an infrastructure investment bank, to help catalyse private investment.

“Alongside announcements in the Spending Review, the Strategy represents a solid down payment on a long-term fiscal commitment to infrastructure.

“As government acknowledges, there are currently some missing pieces of the jigsaw when it comes to energy policy. The 10 point plan set out by the Prime Minister last week set out serious commitments in areas such as wind power, decarbonising heating, developing hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. We look forward to seeing detail on the delivery plans for achieving these targets in forthcoming announcements.

“We welcome reform of the Treasury’s Green Book to assess investments against policy objectives. The proposed focus on investment in local infrastructure is welcome, as are intra-city budgets for mayors. However, to achieve the aim of levelling up, more long-term funding and control for cities is necessary to bring transformational urban public transport projects to places outside London.

“The Commission will monitor the Government’s progress on delivery and very much hope this strategy marks the beginning of a renewed focus on long term infrastructure policy around which industry and investors can plan with confidence. ”

In a period of such uncertainty, the popular phrase “building back better” has become all-encompassing, failing to offer any real clarity about how exactly this can actually be achieved.

While far from comprehensive, the National Infrastructure Strategy does offer a vision for what this can look like, and large scale and long terms aims are a step in leading the UK’s infrastructure forwards. If this Strategy is harnessed and put into practice, it just might be possible that the nation can actually build back better, greener and faster.

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