The government launched its industrial strategy Green Paper on 23 January. It forms a part of the Plan for Britain, which aims to reposition the UK in the world following our exit from the European Union.
The industrial strategy seeks to improve productivity, economic growth across all our regions, and make us a more competitive global economy. It identifies 10 key “pillars” to support this effort: investment in science, research and innovation; skills; upgrading infrastructure; supporting business growth and investment; improving procurement; encouraging trade and investment; delivering affordable energy; cultivating key sectors ; driving growth across the whole country; and the right institutions to bring together sectors and places.
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Clearly, infrastructure stands out as a key pillar for the ICE and we will build on previous work. However, it is important to recognise the linkage among these pillars. In the past, strategies have focused on areas to deliver economic growth and improve productivity. The government has broadened this and acknowledges the important interdependencies across a number of sectors and competencies.
The ICE’s National Needs Assessment approached infrastructure issues in a similar way. We looked at the challenges facing society over the next 35 years – a population of 75M; greater demands on all our networks; greater water scarcity; and more intense flooding.
We know that infrastructure is a core enabler for business. However, the World Economic Forum Global competitiveness report currently positions the UK’s overall quality of infrastructure at 24th in the world. Perhaps more concerning is that when asked about the most problematic factors for doing business in the UK, business leaders ranked inadequate supply of infrastructure as the second and inadequately educated workforce as the fourth.
So there are challenges; however, it is important to recognise recent progress in infrastructure policy, planning and delivery. We now have a National Infrastructure Commission and the Infrastructure & Projects Authority monitors and manages the infrastructure and construction pipeline so that investors and industry have better knowledge. The IPA will also publish its Infrastructure Performance Review this year, building on the work in the Cost Review. Industry was also quick to adopt the ambitions set out in Construction 2025. So we must not approach the new industrial strategy as a new approach to infrastructure, but one that builds on the work that industry and government have achieved in the last seven years.
But the political landscape has changed. Brexit and this year’s mayoral elections will alter institutional structures and the UK’s direction of travel. While this does not fundamentally change the role of infrastructure as an enabler for economic growth and thriving communities, it does provide the opportunity for those planning and delivering infrastructure to look at the role that technology can play. This is where we can make the greatest improvements to productivity.
We can use this industrial strategy to be ambitious and position the UK as a leader in the digital revolution. The ICE will reach out to its learned society, our regional network and to the wider infrastructure industry to ensure that the opportunities for infrastructure are realised.
● Andrew Wescott is ICE’s head of policy and public affairs