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UK infrastructure planning still needs attention

Simon Grubb

Infrastructure has risen up the political agenda and its role in enabling long-term prosperity has rightly been central to the UK’s economic policy.

The establishment of Treasury body Infrastructure UK (IUK) has made the government up its game in supporting delivery and the National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) has highlighted the investment potential of the UK’s infrastructure market.

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the long-term strategic case for infrastructure still requires attention, the evidence base behind projects is often easily contestable, there is no authoritative method for evaluating the performance of our networks and public engagement around projects is often reactive and parochial.

Cutting across these weaknesses is the mismatch between the long-term nature of strategic infrastructure planning and short-term political cycles.  And the need to identify a way to deal with the negative consequences is growing more pressing.

This does not mean removing the politics from decisions on infrastructure as this is neither possible nor desirable. Instead it means establishing a mechanism to help political parties build consensus about the UK’s infrastructure needs – importantly one with public engagement at its heart to foster links between the users and the providers of infrastructure.

The most high profile alternative to the status quo is the proposal for a National Infrastructure Commission by Sir John Armitt, sponsored by the Labour Party. 

Armitt has produced a valuable contribution to the infrastructure debate. The ICE concurs with his analysis of what is stifling UK infrastructure development - and on the need for an evidence based strategy, a plan that translates this to activity on the ground, and an independent body locked in by legislation.

In our response to the Armitt Review, we have, however, proposed that these goals be achieved by building on existing arrangements – in particular restructuring IUK as a non-governmental body.

A restructured body could be operational more quickly than an entirely new body, and avoid losing the momentum generated in recent years. It would also reduce uncertainty, which would shake investor confidence. It is a solution derived through consultation with industry leaders and which we have shared with all main political parties.

Our proposal would result in an independent body established through an Act of Parliament. It would perform four main functions.

The first would be to establish a long-term, evidence based strategy for infrastructure, drawing on up-to-date data and scenarios – for example population growth, climate change risk assessments, Met Office simulations of changing weather patterns.

The second is adapting the NIP into a “National Investment and Delivery Plan” - so projects are packaged with clearly identified funding streams, and directly align to meeting specific objectives.  The body would work with government departments, regulators, private and public organisations and local communities to establish a rolling 10 year plan. The plan would be delivered to Parliament at the start of each new administration, to be voted on in Parliament.

Thirdly, it would report on progress of the projects in the plan and on the performance of key infrastructure networks. This “performance” function would complement the work of IUK’s Major Infrastructure Tracking Team, the Major Projects Authority and the National Audit Office.

Finally, the ICE feels strongly that public engagement needs attention. The restructured body would establish a proactive, vigorous programme of community engagement which would stimulate debate and buy-in, inform the development of the plan, and over time this process would build confidence and credibility into the decision making process.

We believe these principles could be applied to Infrastructure UK, reforming it more quickly and efficiently than creating a new entity - and we urge all parties to consider this approach.

  • Simon Grubb is the ICE infrastructure funding spokesman and sat on the ICE State of the Nation: Infrastructure 2014 report steering group.

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