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Our infrastructure networks require a long-term strategy

28 September 2020

In his latest blog ICE President, Paul Sheffield recounts the discussion as he gave evidence to the Treasury Select Committee last week regarding the Government’s long-term plans for infrastructure.

Our infrastructure networks require a long-term strategy
ICE President Paul Sheffield

It is the objective of the Institution to be the go-to place for infrastructure insight by representing the wide variety of expertise that our members offer. To be successful in that, it is important that we remain independent, impartial and have a strong evidence base for our policy platforms. It is within that model that we are able to provide the best advice and guidance to opinion formers throughout the world.

It was therefore an important step to have the value that ICE brings to the debate explicitly recognised with an invitation to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee here in the UK.

The committee asked to speak to me about the Government’s plans for infrastructure over the coming parliament and focused their questioning on issues such as the role of infrastructure in ‘levelling-up’ the UK, the impact of the pandemic on the country’s infrastructure priorities, as well as how we improve delivery and increase investment amongst other areas.

Our long-term drivers for infrastructure remain the same

I agreed with Sir John Armitt and James Heath who were giving evidence of behalf of the National Infrastructure Commission that whilst the way in which the public has had to adapt to the pandemic has had an impact on our short term priorities, the longer time drivers for the future of infrastructure in the UK have remained the same. These challenges include the need to address regional inequalities, how we manage the significant population growth over the coming decades and how we decarbonise the sector over the next thirty years in order to meet the Government’s net-zero target by 2050.

In the short-term, we know that the need for improved digital connectivity as people work from home has become more important than ever, whilst the changes in the way we use public transport have seen a rapid increase in people using active travel methods such as cycling and walking. This indicates that in the short to medium-term new infrastructure investments should be prioritised around accelerating the rollout of both fibre and 5G and greater active travel provision but that long term trends and the advent of a vaccine are likely to still require us to invest in physical connectivity between our towns and cities.

The Select Committee were interested to understand what type of project could bring benefit to our communities within the term of this Government and I pointed out the range of schemes that would be available for rapid deployment and meaningful change for end users in the next few years.

Awaiting publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy

On the wide strategic questions about how we ensure the country gets the infrastructure it needs for the future, the key underlying point was the need for the Government to publish the long awaited National Infrastructure Strategy. Not only will this give businesses the confidence to invest in projects in the UK, it allows them to identify the long term skill sets needed to deliver it so that they invest in the future work force and deliver more jobs for the economy.

On the issue of investment, the other key point that I made to the committee is the need for the Government to set out its plans for the replacement of the European Investment Bank. The EIB, which has previously driven large amounts of investment into the UKs infrastructure has seen a 90% reduction in that amount since the EU referendum in 2016. With that funding stream no longer available the ICE wants to see the Government create a UK Investment bank which can act to pull in more funding from the private sector over the coming decades.

Long-term certainty drives positive behaviours

I was clear in my evidence that ong-term certainty of the infrastructure pipeline drives many positive behaviours and unlocks many benefits. This was a message that was clearly echoed by all of those giving evidence. I was able to remind the Committee of the substantial economic leverage that investment in infrastructure can bring about and that prioritisation of projects must also take in to consideration the socio-economic drivers that will clearly affect their levelling up priorities - and not just base them on pure financial return on investment.

Affordability of future infrastructure investments is important but not the be all and end all. Future projects should be empowered to support sustainable economic growth.

All of these ambitions can be achieved with a coherent evidence-based National Infrastructure Strategy, which we eagerly await.

Decarbonisation, 'levelling up' and digital connectivity remain paramount

While the here and now has been impacted by Covid-19, the long-term drivers remain the same. Decarbonisation remains a priority, addressing demographic shifts will help rebalance the economy tackling regional inequalities and of course the importance of digital connectivity in enabling all of this. These issues will not be driven asymmetrically and it will require both government and the sector to pull in the same direction at the same time. Clients can take the lead, but only if they are followed.

By working together with Government we can harness the ambition of the new construction playbook and project speed while avoiding unintended consequences. I urged the Government to recognise and act upon the key role they can play in setting targets for consultants and contractors alike to achieve in responding to tender processes that ensure we meet new green targets and modern methods of construction that will improve productivity.

I shared much of this with the select committee and hope that it helps to shape future policy.

  • Paul Sheffield, President 2019-2020 at ICE