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The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has laid out recommendations for a long-term investment strategy in the UK. Its publication couldn’t be timelier.

One of the worst things that can happen to a programme manager is writing a lengthy report for the board on progress and future strategy, only to have said board cancel one of their cornerstone projects just as they hit ‘save’ on the final draft. That’s essentially what happened to Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), in early October.

The NIC provides government with impartial advice on major long-term infrastructure challenges, including energy, transport, water, waste, flood risk and digital communications. In 2018, it issued a National Infrastructure Assessment, analysing progress in key projects and programmes around the UK’s strategic objectives and mapping future priorities. NIC published its second assessment on 18 October, just two weeks after the government cancelled the second northern leg of High Speed 2 (HS2).

Unsurprisingly, the report features a large section on national road and rail networks, emphasising the need to develop an integrated transport strategy. It includes a hastily rewritten section on rail investment: “the second assessment has been undertaken based on the delivery of this long-term rail plan… [but the decision to truncate HS2] leaves a major gap in the UK’s rail strategy, around which a number of cities have based their economic growth plans. While government has committed to reallocate the funding from cancelling the later phases of [HS2] to improve transport… it is not yet clear what the exact scope and delivery schedule is for the proposed new rail schemes.

“A new comprehensive and long-term strategy that sets out how rail improvements will address the capacity and connectivity challenges facing city regions in the North and Midlands is needed. Government should undertake an urgent review of rail priorities involving local leaders and bring forward a rigorously costed portfolio of schemes with clear delivery timescales.”

Although it’s grabbed the headlines, HS2 only features on two other pages in the report — on one, simply a caveat to a graph showing public infrastructure investment levels, which had yet to be recalculated in light of the cancellation. But a glance at the cover image helps explain why. The focus of both the 2023 report (an onshore wind turbine) and the first in 2018 (a large solar PV array) is clearly energy.

Power play

Decarbonising energy and achieving net zero emissions will require massive investment and some strategic, long-term programme thinking around integrated projects. So it’s no surprise this leads off the report. Renewables investment, grid upgrades and a new energy reserve are the key projects here.

Aside from HS2, the media coverage on publication day focused on the NIC’s total rejection of hydrogen as a viable fuel for domestic heating. Heat pumps and community heat networks remain a target for a majority of homes by 2050, with domestic gas connections likely to be phased out well before then.

But those involved in hydrogen projects will be cheered by the recommendation for an integrated national infrastructure for making, storing and transporting the fuel as a priority for heavy industry, with a much shorter deadline of 2035.

Alongside a call for infrastructure capable of handling carbon capture to the tune of 50 mega-tonnes a year and a smarter electricity grid suitable for managing both renewables and baseline generation capacity, this “requires transformational change to planning, regulation and governance of both the transmission and distribution networks.”

Coming after Keir Starmer’s conference commitment to address the UK’s planning sclerosis, the project community might expect major reforms imminently. As Sir John’s foreword states bluntly: “we need to get on with it.”

On the road again

The report calls for a network of at least 300,000 public electric vehicle charge points by 2030 as part of its energy agenda, demanding a radical growth in rollouts. But that also speaks to the need for an integrated transport strategy. The bulk of the Assessment’s recommendations for road and rail come in the section on regional growth, which asks for a £22bn transport investment focused on Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester.

Alongside that national strategy for road and rail links between cities, “government must implement a programme of road and smaller-scale rail investments, which target underperforming section of both networks,” says the report. Projects aiming at resolving congestion, parking and co-ordination of public transport should all benefit.

Alongside the highways, the information superhighway also gets a mention. There’s a call to complete the £5bn subsidy programme to ensure broadband coverage in hardest-to-reach areas by 2030. This should also support the NIC’s request for a clear government strategy on how telecoms and new tech can support other areas of infrastructure.

Built (for) environment

Climate change is a golden thread running through the new report, creating an obvious context for energy and transport investment. But it cautions that ongoing and future infrastructure projects should be resilient to climate change, too — notably drought and floods — and drive improvements in natural resource protection.

The assessment part is the risk as things stand — such as the 820,000 homes at risk of flooding from seas and rivers, yet more from surface water floods. But as with the whole report, it’s the broad goals for 2035 to 2050 that really stand out. And it’s these that will create a context for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of projects in the years to come.

“Private sector investment will need to increase from around £30bn to 40bn a year to £40bn to 50bn a year,” says the report, with public sector investment consistent at £30bn. That’s going to demand rigorous project planning to keep shovels hitting the ground, all within the scope of much broader strategic programmes in every area of infrastructure development.

Reform of planning rules, tweaking utility regulations to better balance investment returns and consumer protections and smarter use of competition for project bids all feature. And, pointedly, the NIC adds, it wants to see “government showing strategic leadership by sticking with its policies through to the end.”

The National Infrastructure Assessment 2023 report barely mentions HS2. The aim is to focus minds in public and private sectors on mammoth challenges facing the country in years to come. But it’s hard to escape the sense that the truncation of the new line —  no matter how vexing for Sir John and his publishing team — is a perfectly timed warning about doing infrastructure right. It’s too important and too costly to get it wrong.


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