If you start talking about infrastructure, few will accuse you of playing to the gallery. The term conjures up images of civil engineers, hard hats and a lot of concrete. Yet the choices we make about infrastructure in the coming years will have profound consequences for the UK’s future, influencing our ability to grow the economy, improve quality of life, protect against flooding and reduce CO2 emissions.
Voices across the political spectrum have highlighted our failure to deliver on infrastructure. Whoever wins the next election, it is likely there will be steps to enhance our ability to deliver major projects.
Sir John Armitt’s review of infrastructure planning for the Labour Party is a good example of how debate is shifting towards more strategic thinking. Published today as a draft National Infrastructure Bill, it will see a future Labour government create a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). This will identify the UK’s infrastructure needs over a 25-30 year time horizon and across a range of sectors if we are to maintain international economic competitiveness. Parliament will have approval over the resulting plan and task government departments with developing more detailed sector infrastructure plans to support it. Naturally, parliament could reject the NIC’s proposals. But the hope is that a commission-led strategic plan will help infrastructure to rise above the politics that so often bedevils it and gain cross party support.
Adding strategy to infrastructure planning
This approach will be valuable in tackling one of one of the key problems with the UK’s current approach to infrastructure planning: it lacks strategy. Looking at infrastructure needs in the round is not only common sense, it is vital to decarbonising the economy. Political cycles work against long term decision making, and policy uncertainty has slowed the delivery of low carbon infrastructure and increased its cost. Yet it represents about two thirds of the current infrastructure pipeline up to 2020. Apart from being a vital economic stimulus, this investment will be central to ensuring the UK is on the right path to meet its climate change targets. Strengthening evidence based assessment and providing more certainty for investors about project timescales and expected funding would be significant steps forward.
Yet streamlining decision making also carries risks. To maintain legitimacy, it will be important that the NIC does not aim to remove the politics from the infrastructure debate, but instead embraces it. Public support for infrastructure needs to be built at different levels.
To achieve broad acceptance of any national plan, there needs to be a role for localism, and routes for communities and individuals to become engaged. Plans for delivering on the draft bill specify that the sector infrastructure plans (SIPs) will involve public consultation. This could be a powerful means of securing public acceptance of infrastructure. As currently envisaged, SIPs will be the point at which, for example, an identified need for greater connectivity between two cities will develop into specific road and rail project proposals. Consultation at this stage will be an opportunity to identify what options the public most value and support, rather than merely consulting them on the specifics of an individual transport project. However, the details of what this consultation will look like are not yet clear and it will have to go beyond statutory consultees if it is to be meaningful.
Infrastructure isn’t just about pouring concrete
It’s also essential that we see infrastructure as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. The NIC should be open to the full variety of ways to achieve any given objective. If a more ambitious electricity saving programme can avoid the need for new power station, the NIC should have the remit to include this in their plan. If developing a floodplain upstream provides more cost effective protection than strengthening river banks downstream, then this option should be available.
But the biggest risk comes from commitment being a double-edged sword. The enhanced ability of our political system to commit to infrastructure projects may also make it possible to proceed more decisively with the ‘wrong’ types of infrastructure. There is currently mounting pressure to support projects, such as road building and airport expansion, from those who see no other routes to economic growth. This risks long term lock-in to highly polluting infrastructure, making it harder, and much more costly, to subsequently decarbonise the economy, reverse poor air quality trends and reduce noise pollution.
Some business commentators think the route to sustainable infrastructure is less politics. The reverse is true, with more discussion about choices and trade-offs better decisions are made and more will get built. The Armitt bill offers better planning, but it will only accelerate the UK’s economic modernisation if it encourages more people to engage in the debate about our infrastructure choices.