Aug 20, 2019 Last Updated 10:52 AM, Aug 14, 2019

Is the NIC using the correct measures for assessing the UK’s infrastructure needs?

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In its recent post-general election statement, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) calls on the Government not to allow the uncertainties around Brexit and the hung Parliament to delay infrastructure projects. The NIC also set out its top 12 major infrastructure priorities including HS2 and HS3, the third runway at Heathrow and Crossrail 2, as well as general priorities including new generating capacity and 5G mobile.

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Fortunately, there does seem to be a common understanding across Parliament that continued investment in infrastructure, in the current climate of uncertainty, is more important than ever to ensure economic growth and that the UK remains internationally competitive.

The NIC’s statement comes ahead of its 'Summer 2017: Vision and Priorities' paper, which is itself a prelude to the NIC’s eagerly anticipated first National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), which will identify the UK’s infrastructure needs and priorities up to 2050. The NIA is due sometime in 2018.

We will not know the actual measures and priorities used by the NIC in identifying the UK’s infrastructure needs until the Vision and Priorities paper is available and, ultimately, the NIA. However, a strong indication of the likely approach and methodology was provided in the NIC’s October 26th Consultation Response paper.

The NIC has pledged a multi-sector analysis featuring a variety of engagement tools including social research, expert roundtables, two formal public consultations and a call for evidence (which occurred in autumn 2016). The expert roundtables are planned for key points throughout the NIA process and will have a sector/issue focus with panels of experts in an array of fields, ranging from social science to engineering. The NIA will also consider 'cross-cutting issues' critical to infrastructure delivery and investment such as funding, sustainability, productivity and skills.

The NIC’s approach appears very thorough and sensible but, as was ever the case, the challenge will be to put theory into practice and only time will tell if the right balance of measures has been adopted. Also it is one thing to set out the UK’s needs, but I suspect the NIC’s success will ultimately be judged by the successful delivery, operation and sustainability of its recommended projects, much of which is outside the NIC’s remit. NIC will need to keep a wary eye on the progress of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) and its five-year National Infrastructure Delivery Plan (NIDP) and National Infrastructure Delivery Pipeline, worth over £480bn.

Social research is plainly vital and will allow the NIC to understand the opinions of “people active in the day-to-day delivery of major infrastructure”. However, it is essential in light of the NIC’s long-term horizon that there is sufficient engagement with younger generations, both as future deliverers and users of infrastructure. It must also take account of micro as well as macro infrastructure requirements, by which I mean the smaller projects and initiatives which directly affect the day-to-day lives of people and without which the mega projects will be neither most effective nor welcomed by the public.

Although the NIC states that it will consider interaction between infrastructure and housing supply, its remit expressly does not include social infrastructure. This is not necessarily wrong, but it does contrast with the IPA, the remit of which very much does include, for example, housing, hospitals and schools. The importance of the interaction between all infrastructure, social, transport, energy and utilities, and the buy in from the ultimate funders, whether as taxpayers or users, cannot be overstated. If we have learnt anything from the recent Brexit referendum and elections (worldwide), it is to beware underestimating the needs and views of the people, and not to rely on the experts in a vacuum.

The NIC’s approach is ambitious, broad and thorough. It is incumbent on us all to do our bit to ensure its ambitions are delivered effectively.

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