The success of the UK’s infrastructure networks in the future will require a clear, long-term strategy, set out by the government.
That was one of the key messages put to the Treasury Select Committee at an evidence session on Wednesday, 23 September. As part of the Committee’s infrastructure inquiry, it invited senior industry leaders to give evidence on the Government’s plans to invest in infrastructure over the remainder of the Parliament.
Paul Sheffield, ICE President, appeared alongside Sir John Armitt, Chair, and James Heath, Chief Executive, of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), as well as Nick Smallwood, CEO of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.
Watch the discussion again here.
A call for long-term clarity
One of the main points made by all panelists, was that much of the success over the coming decades is dependent on there being long-term clarity and certainty on the Government’s priorities for infrastructure. This, they said, should be set out in a National Infrastructure Strategy. The strategy, which is expected to be published at the Spending Review later this year, is a response to the National Infrastructure Commission’s assessment which was published in 2018.
The Committee questioned whether the areas set out in that National Infrastructure Assessment were still the right ones, in light of the widespread changes to the way people live and work as a result of Covid-19. Both the ICE and the NIC agreed that while short-term priorities had changed, the longer-term drivers, such as population growth regional inequality and the net-zero target, remained so the assessment was still relevant.
The impact of Covid-19
Paul Sheffield outlined to the Committee that there were some areas in which Covid-19 had had a significant impact. In the short-term, there had been an increase in the levels of people walking, cycling, and running, as well as an increase in people working from home. As such, higher priority needed to be given to areas such as active travel
and greater digital connectivity, he said, with new infrastructure investments should being prioritised around accelerating the rollout of both fibre and 5G in the short to medium-term. This would enable thousands of people to continue to work more flexibly, while ensuring that safe spaces for more members of the public to continue to engage in active travel are in place.
James Heath, from the NIC, told the Committee that more about what the long-term impact of the pandemic was, would be revealed as part of their work for the next NIA, which will be published in 2023.
Encouraging private investment in infrastructure
The Committee also asked for evidence on how private investment in infrastructure could be encouraged. Sheffield again pointed to the need for certainty on infrastructure priorities, which he explained would reassure private investors that the UK was an attractive place to do business.
He discussed the need for the Government to provide a replacement for the European Investment Bank (EIB), which in the past has been a key mechanism in driving investment in the UK’s infrastructure, both from its own funding and through encouraging private finance. He highlighted this importance, stating that between 2014, and 2016 the EIB provided finance for transport and energy projects in the UK to the value of €11.5bn. Following the EU referendum, there was an almost 90% decrease, with investments in UK transport and energy projects between 2017 and 2019 only valuing €1.6bn. He reiterated calls made by the Institution or government to consider the creation of a UK investment bank, which could take on this role.
The Committee will continue to monitor the Government’s announcements on infrastructure over the coming months.
Follow more about ICE’s work in the lead-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review by reading our rolling news update.