National Needs Assessment - an update

After gathering evidence from hundreds of organisations and individuals across the UK, Sir John Armitt looks at what we have learnt about our infrastructure needs and what happens next.

Sir John Armitt speaks to a National Needs Assessment engagement conference
Sir John Armitt speaks to a National Needs Assessment engagement conference

In September last year a coalition of business, industry, environment and academic leaders united to undertake an independent evidence based 'needs assessment’ for the UK – known as the NNA. We had a vision, a common goal – to better inform critical, long-term decision making on infrastructure, and facilitate choices that are strategic.

Seven months later, a nationwide call for evidence has been launched and a series of evidence gathering events and workshops have taken place right across the UK. Well over 400 organisations and individuals from across industry, business, environment, economic, academic communities and more, have engaged with the NNA and contributed evidence during this process. 600 people from the wider built environment, legal, political and professional services, and members of the public, have also engaged and shared views via Twitter.

The response has been huge, and has provided us with a wealth of evidence and expertise. I am delighted the NNA has been embraced in this way.

Fresh approach

I believe the collaborative nature of the project has played a part, creating real a sense of excitement. A group of very different organisations working together – ultimately to benefit society, grow the economy and drive the shift to a low carbon future. The approach feels fresh, like we have broken down the silo mentality for the common good. This has come across in all of the evidence gathering sessions.

These sessions have really got to the heart of core factors that will impact on our future infrastructure needs in the next 35 years. Devolution, affordability, public acceptability, climate change and meeting our environmental obligations, new technology, population growth – these questions and many more have to be tackled, and without doubt getting to the right answer on these issues is complex. We have also looked at the sectors – how the networks are performing and how they will cope with the demands placed on them in the future.

The evidence gathered is now being collated and analysed. Academic research is also underway by the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), led by the University of Oxford, and will form part of the evidence base, along with other economic and environmental analysis.

Recurring themes

Clearly it is too soon to make recommendations, however our observations from both the evidence gathering events and written evidence, show three recurring themes.

Firstly, there is a strong sense that we need leaders who can operate on a local level – understanding and championing local infrastructure needs – but also grasp the bigger picture; our nation’s strategic needs . As devolution gathers pace, it will of course throw up challenges and opportunities and the issue of leadership will be at the centre of the debate.

Secondly, future technology will have a significant role to play in the way we deliver and use infrastructure. It is – by its nature – hard to predict, but we need to get on the front foot providing flexible and adaptable infrastructure which can both accommodate and benefit from technology changes. The broad view is that we simply cannot afford not to.

Last but not least, the interdependent and vulnerable nature of our infrastructure systems. The way the sectors interrelate is still largely misunderstood or unappreciated, and there are questions that keep coming up and need answering. For example, how will autonomous transport impact on the energy sector?

Energy is without doubt our most vital network due to the role it plays in ensuring all the other networks – transport, water, waste and ICT – function effectively and can meet future demand. With capacity margins reducing is it possible to deliver ambitious plans across other sectors, if we have not yet addressed our energy issues?

The situation is similar for digital infrastructure, it already underpins many other key infrastructure services we rely on and this will only increase - the infrastructure industry is only really at the start of a digital revolution.

I look forward to exploring these and other areas over the coming months – and ascertaining through the evidence we have garnered, how they are likely to impact on our future needs.

Our conclusions will be published in the autumn, and the work will also be shared with the National Infrastructure Commission, to support its own needs analysis.

About the author and NNA

Sir John Armitt is ICE President and National Needs Assessment (NNA) Executive Group chair. He is also a member of the National Infrastructure Commission.

Organisations on the NNA Executive Group: KPMG, Pinsent Masons, CBI, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, National Grid, London First, Green Alliance, Transport for Greater Manchester, Thames Water, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry and Graham Dalton, former Highways Agency CEO.