Exploring the National Infrastructure Assessment

The National Infrastructure Commission recently published the first ever National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), which analyses the UK's long-term infrastructure needs up to 2050 and makes several recommendations and proposals. Our panel of construction and planning experts highlight the most noteworthy recommendations of the NIA, and the challenges that now face the government.
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The experts

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

What are your thoughts on the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs as identified in the NIA?

DS: The scope of this first NIA is huge, covering recommendations for infrastructure in the UK relating to transport, energy, water and waste water, flood resilience, digital connectivity and solid waste—from now until 2050. This is massive agenda to engage with, but in many ways, that is the point—government has the responsibility to coordinate and prioritise delivery across all these areas, including meeting its legislated commitments around decarbonising. This first NIA reflects well on the work of the NIC since its establishment in 2015, and under its current chair Sir John Armitt CBE.RM: First of all, it is good to see that steps are being taken to properly determine the UK’s infrastructure needs and to deal with them, and the recognition that major infrastructure projects take too long from inception to delivery is to be welcomed. In terms of the needs identified in the report, there is a clear recognition of the changing nature of society and the change in infrastructure needs this creates has a clear focus on IT infrastructure requirements and on the energy transition in terms of the shift to renewables, which includes the need for infrastructure for electric vehicles.

 

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:

  • nationwide full fibre broadband by 2033
  • half of all the UK’s power provided by renewables by 2030
  • three quarters of plastic packaging recycled by 2030
  • £43bn of stable long-term transport funding for regional cities
  • preparing for 100% electric vehicle sales by 2030
  • ensuring resilience to extreme drought
  • a national standard of flood resilience for all communities by 2050

The NIA makes clear that these have been costed and, as such, they consider them to be reasonable and achievable.

In your opinion, what are the most important recommendations made by the NIA?

DS: While support for high profile traditional ‘infrastructure’ projects will attract much of the headlines (and support for the Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail 2 are welcome), how we work, and where, is changing fast. In that context, one can make a case for nationwide full-fibre digital connectivity and the NIA’s recommendations in that regard being just as strategically important, if not more so.With many large projects focussed on ‘inter’ city transport projects, the NIA is right to focus on the need to deliver ‘within’ UK cities, with so many existing city transport networks close to capacity. Equally, the measures on preparing the UK for all electric vehicles will attract a lot of interest, as the ‘roads revolution’ of all electric and increasingly autonomous vehicles gathers pace.

 

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.

Does the NIA go far enough?

DS: Given the scale of this report, it would be churlish to criticise minor omissions. It would however have been interesting to see the NIC be a little more candid about its views as to the reasons for some of the failures of infrastructure delivery in the past (and not just political procrastination), and how these can be mitigated going forward given the huge scale of delivery now required. For example, do they consider that more needs to be done to change the procurement models for major infrastructure projects and the government’s role as the construction sector’s largest client?RM: In terms of recommendations and aspirations, there is plenty in there. What needs to be developed is the plan for implementation—in particular around financing for infrastructure projects, where private sector financing is to be used in the implementation of improvements to the planning process and general efficiencies in the government decision-making process. The time taken to reach a decision on the proposed Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project is evidence of the need for this.

 

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.

What do you think the NIA will mean for UK infrastructure?

DS: Long term properly coordinated infrastructure planning for the UK is something that all governments struggle to deliver on. Political cycles are notoriously short term. But by establishing the NIC in 2015, as the non-ministerial government department with a mandate to undertake a national infrastructure assessment each Parliament, the NIC and the NIA should, at the very least, help set a coordinated agenda and provide some additional grip in holding the government’s feet to the fire when it comes to delivery.RM: The NIA should now give direction and focus to the government, however, what is needed to get results is the clear implementation of the recommendations as policy and spending commitments.

 

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.

Any other comments?

DS: Politicians at all levels need to engage with the important work the NIC is progressing in publishing this NIA, to try and improve on the glacial speed with which many UK infrastructure projects get supported and delivered. Politicians of all parties need to focus on the fact that many of these projects are huge enablers of social justice and mobility, as they open up new work possibilities for people across the UK when delivered.DF: One area which the government may find challenging is the emphasis given by the NIC on the importance of long-term funding settlements in a number of areas, eg energy efficiency, transport and housing and flooding. In the context of Brexit, there is an interesting reference to the desirability of retaining access to the European Investment Bank and the importance of establishing a UK replacement if access is lost as part of the terms of our departure from the EU.

 

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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