It has been an eventful few months for UK infrastructure policy, even by recent standards. Industry warnings about offshore wind incentives were ignored, net zero policies were scaled back, and the northern leg of High Speed 2 was cancelled.
Within this whirlwind policy environment, the second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) was published by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).
Looking ahead to 2055, the NIC’s top-level conclusion is that infrastructure investment is the solution to many of the long term challenges the UK faces.
The assessment is the most comprehensive review yet of how investing in infrastructure will support regional growth and help the UK reach net zero.
It shows how long standing challenges, including limited grid capacity, poor road and rail connectivity, and the high cost of building infrastructure in the UK, are holding back progress.
Greater policy certainty, faster decision-making, stable regulation and a more effective planning system are all part of the solution.
At a recent ICE-hosted roundtable with the NIC, there was clear support from senior industry figures for the NIC’s vision and recommendations.
It is important to emphasise that NIA2 is not a wishlist of projects and programmes
The NIC was established in 2015 to provide the government with independent, evidence-based advice.
There has been marked progress since the first assessment in 2018. This includes the growth in renewable electricity generation, the establishment of the UK Infrastructure Bank, further devolution deals and clear pathways for the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband and uptake of electric vehicles.
The governments may not agree with or implement every recommendation to the letter, but it is clear that policymakers, for the most part, heed the NIC’s advice. When they do, the results are visible and people benefit. When they do not, problems pile up for the future.
It is important to emphasise that NIA2 is not a wishlist of projects and programmes. Every recommendation has been costed within the fiscal remit that the Treasury sets for the NIC. Sustained public sector investment of £30bn per year is needed until 2040 along with a significant increase in private sector investment – up to £40bn to £50bn in the 2030s and 2040s – to deliver desired outcomes.
Critical to increasing investor confidence in a globally competitive market, NIA2 recommends greater clarity and consistency of policy and regulation.
So what happens next? The NIC has produced its advice and now the government must consider its approach.
The assessment has been published at a time when policy stability and direction are needed more than ever.
As the UK heads for a General Election in 2024, it is clear that future discussions and infrastructure policies must use the NIC’s recommendations as their foundation.
Transforming the UK’s infrastructure is essential and there is no time to waste if climate targets are to be reached and fairer economic growth delivered.
But given recent changes in direction on net zero and transport policies, there are challenges ahead.
If the UK continues its stop/start approach to infrastructure planning and fails to commit to long term goals, costs will rise even further and the country will miss out on much-needed private investment.
Ultimately, this means the problems being faced by the public will get bigger.
Let us hope that NIA2 is used as intended – as a road map for the country’s future success.
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