With the commentary around infrastructure decision-making in recent months, it is sometimes easy to forget the major changes over the last decade that have improved the system for infrastructure prioritisation and planning.
Over that period, the most notable change has been the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission. This went from concept in the 2015 Labour Party Manifesto to reality under George Osborne shortly afterwards, and by 2018, we had a National Infrastructure Assessment. Significantly, the concept of an independent advisory board for infrastructure prioritisation has been taken forward by the Scottish and Welsh governments.
At a recent All-Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure event on “what should be the in the National Infrastructure Strategy?” a packed room debated next steps, with everyone eager for the debate to move on to practical delivery. The UK Government’s Industrial Strategy has also recognised the foundational nature of infrastructure in supporting productivity growth.
Another significant change was the creation of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime.
Speedig the planning process
From go-live in 2009, the process has helped to speed up the planning process for major infrastructure projects and ensured projects could proceed with greater legal and political certainty where established National Policy Statements exist. For example, in June 2018, the vote by MPs in favour of the Airports National Policy Statement paved the way for Heathrow to apply for a new runway with greater certainty.
Devolution, particularly within England, has played a major role too. From 2015, the mayoral concept in England has taken off and slowly gained the ability to deliver on infrastructure expectations and electoral promises, using the power of the podium.
One noted example is the role Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen played in making and winning the case for Teesside International to be taken over and developed by the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Within this space, sub-national transport bodies have also been established for all parts of England to focus on transport strategies across wider regions, based on more coherent spatial planning.
These examples demonstrate that there is a good framework on which to start planning the future. Rather than arguing for these things, the debate is now about how they can evolve, not whether they should be created.
These debates include: How do we spread the benefits of mayoral influence to other structures in England? What new infrastructure powers need to be devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? And do they need to think about regional devolution as well? Should the NSIP process incorporate housing or be used for wider multi-infrastructure programmes such as the development of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor? More broadly, is the UK system the best?
This year, the ICE will be looking at common and best practice across infrastructure prioritisation and planning around the world. With a better evidence base of what works, we can ensure we build upon the hard-won gains across the last 10 years.