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Infrastructure needs some holistic thinking

The National Policy Statements set out this week by energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband to fast track plans for nuclear power, wind farms and clean coal generation are a welcome step to making the nation’s low carbon infrastructure aspirations a reality.

And with transport minister Paul Clark also publishing his National Policy Statement for ports, we look set to enter a new era of infrastructure planning which has been properly thought through by experts who know.

Which is good news. But these statements are just the start. If we are serious about revamping our critical infrastructure to make it fit for the 21st century, the government will have to get even more radical in its thinking.

“The key to ensuring that we are actually able to create the low carbon economy required will be our ability to join up all the plans.”

Imagine, for instance, what might happen if all of this critical new infrastructure could be planned and coordinated by a single body rather than by a handful of disparate single interest government departments. Imagine what might happen if the funding could be pulled together centrally.

Of course prime minister Gordon Brown’s Building Britain’s Future paper last July set out the blueprint for just such a body and the detail of how Infrastructure UK will operate are now being fleshed out by Lord Davies ahead of December’s pre-Budget Report.

As NCE never tires of pointing out, investing in the creation of decent modern infrastructure is the most important thing that the government can do to secure the nation’s future and drive the economic recovery.

But the key to the success of this investment - the key to ensuring that we are actually able to create the low carbon economy required - will be our ability to join up all the plans to form a coherent strategy for the nation.

It was a point made well by ICE president Paul Jowitt in his inaugural address. As he put it, we need a systems approach and some holistic thinking behind our infrastructure.

“Imagine being able to strip away local and departmental fiefdoms to bring forward the best solutions to meet the nation’s needs.”

Reform of the planning process is of course a start. Under (civil engineer) Sir Michael Pitt’s leadership we will see decisions on major infrastructure made much more efficiently. But even more holistic thinking is needed.

Imagine, for example, an infrastructure group within the Treasury with the sole focus on planning, coordinating, funding and driving the creation of critical infrastructure. Imagine being able to strip away local and departmental fiefdoms to bring forward the best solutions to meet the nation’s needs.

To the optimist it will probably sound completely sensible. To the pessimist it no doubt seems more like a good excuse to defer investment even longer. And don’t forget the Conservatives have of course vowed to scrap the Infrastructure Planning Commission and will inevitably have their own thoughts about how Whitehall is run.

But who knows. This holistic, systems approach must surely be the only way to coordinate the low carbon secure infrastructure for the future. It will be radical but let’s see what the pre-Budget report comes up with.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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