Project Speed? The impact of the pandemic on the delayed National Infrastructure Strategy
With the much delayed National Infrastructure Strategy finally expected to be published later this year, all eyes are now on how it can help deliver on both net-zero targets and the 'levelling up' agenda after the pandemic
In July 2018, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published its assessment of the state of infrastructure in the UK and called on the government to respond by producing a long-term, ambitious National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS). At the time of publication, the government was urged to produce its response within only six months, a deadline that now seems incredibly optimistic over 2 years on.
Having been pushed back several times, ministers have confirmed that the strategy is now due to be released by the end of 2020. As the end of the year draws close, the NIS is expected to be published any day now, with some sources reporting that the strategy could be unveiled before the month is out.
Despite some backlash for its delayed publication, businesses have welcomed that the strategy will now be published in light of the pandemic and have speculated that the document will form the backbone of the green recovery. Chair of the NIC, Sir John Armitt, has encouraged the government to develop short-term plans and a longer-term vision in tandem, recognizing that a green recovery could lay strong foundations for the government’s wider ambitions to level-up the country, and reach net zero by 2050.
Further to the NIC’s ambitions, the body published its Annual Monitoring Report for 2020 in February, in which it recognized that the government was seeking to capitalize on the “shift in political momentum on infrastructure” but expressed concern that vital time had been lost. Furthermore, the Report urged the government to urgently publish the NIS to fully outline its future policy initiatives, as well as full details on funding and deadlines. The key core ambitions of the NIC include the rollout of nationwide full fibre broadband by 2033, for half of the UK’s power provided by renewables by 2030, and £43 billion of stable long-term transport funding for regional cities among others.
Although much has changed since February, the discourse surrounding the potential of infrastructure for the benefit of the whole country has only increased. In March, the Spring Budget saw the Chancellor pledge funding worth £600bn for UK infrastructure spending over the subsequent 5 years, tripling the average net investment made over the last 40 years. The Treasury was due to provide further details outlining how the first significant tranche of infrastructure funding would be spent in the now cancelled three-year Comprehensive Spending Review. Although the longer-term CSR has since been scrapped in order to focus on supporting the economy through the pandemic, it has now been confirmed that the upcoming one-year Review will include funding to invest in infrastructure to drive the green as one of its three core focuses.
In other key funding announcements, June saw the launch of the Treasury’s Project Speed. In his ‘build, build, build’ speech, the Prime Minister announced that the Infrastructure Delivery Taskforce would bring forward proposals to deliver government’s public investment projects more strategically and efficiently. The speech also revealed that the Government was bringing forward £5bn of capital investment projects, as well as seeking a radical reform of the planning system to increase productivity and create new skilled jobs. While the speech hinted at reduced red tape and increased funding for infrastructure projects, the majority of the spending announcement focused on construction and housing more broadly, rather than tackling new transport, low carbon energy, and digital networks as the NIS is expected to.
With regard to announcements on transport infrastructure spending, it’s likely that focus will be on optimizing the benefit of current major projects such as HS2 and Crossrail. Given that HS2 has seen criticism from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority in the previous year for overspending, and Crossrail has pushed back its expected opening until 2022, it would be reasonable to ensure that the full benefits of both projects will be felt. Although nationwide connectivity has been a key theme underpinning the levelling-up agenda, particularly through the pandemic, it’s unlikely that any major announcements will be made until the Union Connectivity Review is completed next year.
On energy infrastructure, increasing the use of renewables has been a key theme for both the NIC and the Government’s green recovery. The NIC updated its recommendation to the government in August, suggesting that the government should seek to achieve 65% renewable energy by 2030, increased from 50% in 2018. During his address to the Conservative Party Conference in October, the Prime Minister committed to achieving 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030, which would see the UK becoming the world leader. However, this would still not be enough to achieve the NIC’s goals, so it is possible that investment in onshore wind and solar power could also be outlined.
Although few specific policies have been guaranteed in the run-up to the publication of the NIS, it is clear that the document will present a clear indication of the degree of commitment that the government holds towards its decarbonisation aims and levelling up agenda. Balancing the mounting debt created by the pandemic against well-funded and purposeful infrastructure planning will be critical to ensure that the government can match its aims. Although the government’s enthusiasm for infrastructure spending is welcomed for now, their NIS must represent a clear and comprehensive strategy in order to bring private and public stakeholders with them.
Helen Hill is Dods political consultant specialising in transport and infrastructure