Opening up the infrastructure debate

At my ICE Presidential Address in November, I talked about the potential of the National Infrastructure Commission in achieving the ‘holy grail’ for infrastructure: political consensus and long-term strategic thinking.

Sir John Armitt became ICE President in November 2015, shortly after being appointed to the new National Infrastructure Commission.
Sir John Armitt became ICE President in November 2015, shortly after being appointed to the new National Infrastructure Commission.

I also stressed the need for the Commission's recommendations to government and parliament to be based on robust and independent evidence, and I believe the engineering community and other professions have a collective responsibility to inform this evidence base and play a part in enabling decision-making which benefits everyone in society.

I announced that a coalition of business, industry, environment and academic leaders – all with a common goal - had united to undertake an evidence-based infrastructure needs assessment which the Commission could feed into its work. The project has the support of commission chair, Lord Adonis.

Our 'National Needs Assessment' will provide an independent view on our needs up to 2050 – a vision set against uncertainties such as climate change. It will review the different options for meeting those needs - after all the answer is not always to simply build more, but to question why we are doing something; what we want to achieve. Can we make more efficient use of existing infrastructure for example? Constraints such as affordability and public acceptability will also be considered.

Your views needed

Today marks the start of the written evidence gathering phase for our assessment. It is an opportunity to really open up the infrastructure debate, and I encourage everyone with a stake to contribute evidence.

The consultation gets to the heart of a number of core issues – for example, how do we effectively manage the 'interdependencies' between the infrastructure networks, how will new and emerging technologies really affect demand for infrastructure? How do we maximise the devolution opportunity and overcome the challenges it presents? And how can we better engage the public on infrastructure decisions?

Public perceptions

A recent survey revealed that 87% of the public support infrastructure investment, and 85% want to see world-leading or solid improvements to existing infrastructure. When the benefits of a project are made clear, people sit up, take note and ask for more of the same. The public want to be kept informed about infrastructure and want to be involved. Without sufficient political and public support important projects simply cannot proceed, so it is absolutely right that we consider this in our National Needs Assessment.

Creating a 2050 vision

The written consultation closes on 29 February, and will be followed by a series of evidence hearings and workshops around the country. Alongside this, research is being undertaken by the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium, and we will be drawing on a vast pool of data and analysis. Conclusions will be captured in a report to be published in the autumn.

Earlier, I said that the organisations uniting to produce this assessment share a common goal – that is to develop a long-term infrastructure strategy. One which drives the economic growth necessary to enhance the UK's position in the global economy, support a high quality of life and enable a shift to a low carbon future.

I am confident that collectively, we can make a significant contribution to this and I look forward to seeing our vision for 2050 unfold over the coming months.

The organisations involved in the National Needs Assessment are ICE, CBI, KPMG, Pinsent Masons, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, Graham Dalton (Independent, former Highways Agency CEO), National Grid, London First, Green Alliance, Transport for Greater Manchester, Thames Water and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

About the author

Sir John Armitt, ICE President, is chair of the National Needs Assessment executive group.

Sir John is also a commissioner on the National Infrastructure Commission, chairman of the National Express Group and City & Guilds, and deputy chairman of the Berkeley Group. His previous roles include chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, chief executive of Costain and chief executive of Network Rail.

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