Next UK National Infrastructure Assessment priorities set out in new report

The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) baseline report has a clear focus on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and making infrastructure work better for the public. 

The next NIA will explore the management of existing infrastructure assets and surface water management. Image credit: Shutterstock
The next NIA will explore the management of existing infrastructure assets and surface water management. Image credit: Shutterstock
  • Updated: 15 November, 2021
  • Author: David McNaught, ICE Policy Manager

The National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) new baseline report sets out the current state of the UK’s infrastructure alongside the key themes and strategic gaps the NIC proposes to address in the second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) due in 2023.

The report emphasises the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and invest more in making existing assets resilient to the effects of climate change, both of which ICE identified as crucial in our recent paper on NIA2.

This follows the government’s recent expansion of the NIC’s remit, adding a further objective to support the transition to net zero and enable climate resilience, and the extension of the upper end of the NIC’s fiscal remit to 1.3%.

Alongside those issues, supporting levelling-up will be the third strategic theme of the next NIA.

Ensuring infrastructure fit for a changing society

The first National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA1) in 2018 led to the government publishing the UK’s first National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS), which committed to implementing the majority of the NIC’s recommendations.

Rather than making further recommendations at this stage, the baseline report evaluates the performance of the UK’s economic infrastructure and identifies the NIC’s future priorities.

It pinpoints recent successes, including the gigabit capable broadband installation, the establishment of the UK Infrastructure Bank, and the ongoing decarbonisation of the electricity grid – all of which were recommended in NIA1 and have since either been delivered or are being rolled out.

The report also updates what the NIC views as the key demand drivers for future infrastructure planning – alongside the impact of climate change and the UK’s ageing population, it highlights the economic and behavioural impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It also explores the opportunities arising from digital technologies, including for cutting costs, enhancing service quality and improving resilience.

Is the UK ready to meet long-term national objectives?

While the report argues that the UK’s infrastructure networks are performing well in some areas – such as access to mobile connectivity and reliable energy – it cautions significant work is needed to meet the challenges linked to climate change, environmental decline and behaviour change.

For instance, we still need substantial further carbon reductions in electricity generation to reach near zero emissions by 2035 to meet the Sixth Carbon Budget.

This is one of nine areas that NIA2 will examine across its three themes. Others include identifying the infrastructure needed for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, which are crucial for decarbonising hard to abate sectors, and finding a viable pathway for transitioning to low carbon heating for homes.

With emissions from transport not declining, the report also highlights the need to accelerate delivery of the infrastructure required to transition to electric vehicles over the 2020s and 2030s.

There is concern too about the UK’s vulnerabilities to extreme weather linked to climate change and low public confidence in the UK’s flood resilience, with more than five million properties in England at risk of flooding. The next NIA will explore the management of existing infrastructure assets and surface water management.

The report also sets out the challenges that will need to be addressed for the government to deliver its levelling-up agenda, including wide variations on rail performance, poor urban transport connectivity and congestion arising from continuing reliance on private cars.

A clear direction of travel

The priority themes and demand drivers set out by the NIC align closely with those identified by ICE in our recent paper looking ahead to NIA2, which drew on the views of the civil engineering community.

It is also a positive sign that the NIC’s research found public confidence in infrastructure’s ability to meet their needs over the coming decades has improved since the first NIA, an indication that the right frameworks have been put in place.

Nevertheless, the report sets out the scale of the challenge facing the UK and the need to close the gap between the government’s ambitious targets and realistic policies to achieve them, which the recently published Net Zero Strategy goes someway to addressing.

The publication of the Net Zero Strategy alongside the Net Zero Review also highlighted the urgency of resolving how we will pay for delivering net zero. It is therefore welcome that the NIC will consider funding and regulatory challenges as part of NIA2, including the affordability of the required investment, distribution of costs and who should pay.

While more focus on the governance arrangements for delivering a net-zero infrastructure system might have been useful in light of the complex, interconnected nature of these challenges, the baseline report shows that the direction of travel for strategic infrastructure planning is both aligned to and realistic about the key long-term challenges facing the country.

Next steps

The NIC will now gather input and insight from stakeholders including industry, political leaders, representative bodies and the public to inform NIA2 and help it formulate its policy recommendations for government.

ICE has supported the work of the NIC since its inception and will be responding to the NIC’s call for evidence, building on the work carried out for our recent NIA2 paper.

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