Andrew Adonis: To compete on the global stage, we need infrastructure fit for the future

Posted On: 
19th October 2017

From tackling congestion to rolling out 5G and ultrafast broadband, improving our infrastructure is the key to ensuring the UK succeeds on the global stage, writes Lord Adonis 

Lord adonis identifies congestion as one of three major infrastructure challenges facing the UK
Credit: 
PA Images

Infrastructure is the foundation of all successful societies. Whether the aqueducts, viaducts, roads and highways that were the glory of the Roman empire, or the railways, bridges, parks and sewers that were the legacy of the Victorian era, infrastructure can shape and transform an entire country.

The UK can be proud of its record here: the third Forth bridge, opened by Her Majesty the Queen last month, is a Scottish masterpiece; the transformation of Birmingham New Street has breathed new life into that part of the city centre, and residents in Manchester can commute easier across the city thanks to the new tram network, while in London the new Elizabeth Line will offer a crucial link between the east and west of the Capital. Next year, work will start on HS2 cutting journey times and increasing capacity for those looking to travel cross-country.

But for all these successes, investment in infrastructure has long been squeezed, and policy has often been erratic. Much of our infrastructure is showing signs of age and strain, and the failure of our digital networks to keep up with technological change and demand is particularly serious.

The National Infrastructure Commission, which I chair, was established to tackle this very issue, and each Parliament to provide an assessment of the UK’s requirements for economic infrastructure of national significance.

Our latest publication is the first stage of this, and identifies the most important issues and priorities for consideration and consultation. Its findings will be central to the National Infrastructure Assessment we will publish next summer, looking ahead right up to 2050.

At its heart are three main challenges. First, congestion. We need to invest in alternatives to the private car, upgrading and expanding our rail systems, and offering better options for those looking to travel by bike or bus, or on foot. But perhaps the most serious failure of all in this area has been the delays in planning for new national airport capacity. It’s been 13 years since a definite policy statement in favour of a third runway at Heathrow; 13 years on, and we’re still waiting. For a Brexit Britain looking to attract global trade, the “Heathrow Full” sign must come down as soon as possible.

Secondly, we must tackle capacity. This country risks falling behind economically if we do not invest in our digital networks, and ensure everyone across the country has the option of 5G mobile and ultrafast broadband connections. But we must also ensure communities have sufficient water supply long into the future, and that there is sufficient flood protection measures in help manage extremes of weather.

And finally, there is the carbon challenge. We need smart charging points for electric vehicles, which will help improve air quality as diesel and petrol cars are phased out. But we must also rise to the challenge of how we heat our homes and businesses for the future, and with two thirds of the UK’s power stations scheduled to close by 2030, we must look to take advantage of the falling costs of renewable sources of electricity.

But these are not just challenges for ministers in Whitehall: The Mayor of London and the six new Metro Mayors across the country also have a part to play. That’s why I was delighted that Andy Street, Andy Burnham, James Palmer, Tim Bowles and Sadiq Khan joined me to launch the consultation in Birmingham, demonstrating their commitment to improving infrastructure, and their recognition of what a difference that could make to the lives of their residents.

No public body has attempted to review the country’s infrastructure needs in this way, and taken such a long-term perspective in doing so.

If we are to ensure the UK is best-placed to compete on the global stage, we must have infrastructure fit for the future. After all, great national infrastructure is not an end in itself – it makes everything else possible. 

 

Lord Adonis is chair of the National Infrastructure Commission