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David Savage (DS), head of the construction and infrastructure sector at Charles Russell SpeechlysRob McNabb (RM), partner in the construction and engineering group at Eversheds Sutherland
Duncan Field (DF), partner in the planning team at Norton Rose Fulbright
Paul Wakefield (PW), associate partner in the planning department at Shakespeare Martineau
There is some comfort in the fact that the infrastructure needs identified in the report are in line with what we have seen being identified as areas for infrastructure investment in other developed jurisdictions—but also a sense that there is not really anything unique in terms of the needs which have been identified for the UK.
DF: This is the first holistic review of the UK’s infrastructure needs by the NIC. Predictably, it addresses the most acute long-term challenges facing the UK such as climate change, housing supply and technology. However, the recommendations have been arrived at without the constraints of shorter term considerations and, as a result, the NIC has produced an integrated set of ambitious proposals which form a robust strategy for the country.
PW: The NIA recommends the following targets for national infrastructure over the coming years:
The NIA makes clear that these have been costed and, as such, they consider them to be reasonable and achievable.
A significant element of the report rightly focuses on decarbonisation of the energy supply, but it is good to see these proposals sitting alongside proposals for climate change adaptation including those relating to extreme drought resilience and a national standard for flood resistance.
Business will be more cautious around the NIA’s suggestion of local infrastructure levies, which have generally not worked outside of London—not least because of the dramatically different land values context.
RM: Embracement of the energy transition is the most important recommendation. We have seen power prices from renewables tumble globally, and the UK is well placed to benefit from these and to enhance its energy security position as a result. There is also a recognition that this is not just about installing renewable energy generating plants, but the improvement of the grid infrastructure and the implementation of smart grid solutions, as well as the clear need for infrastructure for electric vehicles—particularly if the government is to reach its own targets in this regard.
DF: In my view, the most important recommendations are, firstly, the support for a high renewable energy generation mix (50% of UK energy demand to be met by renewables by 2030) with limits on carbon capture and storage technology, and new nuclear power stations. Secondly, the proposal for integrated strategies for transport, employment and housing supported by long-term funding.
PW: From an environmental perspective, the shift towards renewable energy and a strong focus on both plastic and food waste recycling are, in my opinion, long overdue. Similarly, the push towards electric vehicles will undoubtedly assist in the drive to improve air quality, particularly in cities. The recent hot weather, and the commensurate lack of rain, has highlighted the importance of planning for climate change, and improving our resilience to drought. The floods of recent years have highlighted our susceptibility to extreme weather events, the response to which has appeared to be both knee-jerk and piecemeal.
Finally, a push towards improved broadband across the entire country is clearly a necessary and welcome proposal. Similarly, the investment in long term transport funding, and in particular, the enhancement of the country’s rail network is already a long-held ambition of the government.
DF: Yes, the NIA provides an in-depth and wide-ranging assessment of the UK’s infrastructure needs, and its conclusions are supported by more detailed technical papers. If there is one omission, it is perhaps an issue which is arguably beyond the NIC’s remit, and that is the need for a national spatial plan which directs growth and investment across the country.
PW: While the proposals are all sensible and practical, I wonder whether they necessarily go far enough. Could we not aspire to recycle more than three quarters of our plastic packaging? Should we not aim to have more than half of our power from renewables by 2030? Is it reasonable to ask people in areas prone to flooding to wait another 32 years before the nation is fully flood resistant?
From a cost point of view, it is difficult to argue that the levels of investment required need to be spread over a long period, but at the same time there are a number of measures which could, and perhaps should, be fast-tracked if possible.
DF: The NIA in itself is a valuable piece of work but the conditions for delivery of more infrastructure (and the investment needed to support it) will be highly dependent on the government’s response to the NIA, which is expect in the next six to 12 months.
PW: The other point to note is that, while the NIA sets out recommendations, for any of these measures to come forward it will require political support and investment—not just in the short term, but over a prolonged period of time, which may require the government to make long-term investment decisions. Given the current political uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the balance of power in the Conservative party, it remains to be seen whether there is currently the political willpower to make such decisions at the present time. If there isn’t, then the recommendations of the NIA may not progress, which in turn may be detrimental to the country in the long term.
Interviewed by Nicola Laver. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.
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