APPGI chair Andrew Jones reflects on a “highly engaged” parliamentary discussion on infrastructure delivery in the UK.
One of the things I enjoy most about the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) is the support we receive from excellent speakers and guests, leading to insightful and stimulating events.
It’s always a pleasure to welcome the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to the House. Wednesday 29 March was NIC chair Sir John Armitt and chief executive James Heath’s first in-person visit since before the pandemic.
The central discussion was around the NIC’s recently published Infrastructure Progress Review.
Background: the Infrastructure Progress Review 2023
Sir John introduced the paper, highlighting that the government has ambitious goals but in many areas isn’t delivering fast enough. The NIC review recommends principles to get delivery back on track.
James expanded with some specifics that detailed issues and areas for improvement across a broad range of sectors.
Resolving competing needs
There were plenty of questions from the MPs and Lords present. The first set one of the themes of the day: competing needs and priorities.
It referred to the prioritisation of roads to Dover, whose intense use – sometimes as a holding area during disruptions to cross-Channel services – has huge implications for local people. The discussion explored this tension between local impact and national need and the NIC’s view on how to resolve it.
There are always projects that need progressing, in every sector, but there’s a limit to capital budgets. How to judge which projects go forward first isn’t straightforward.
In some ways, of course, that is what the NIC exists to help with.
Fiscal devolution and local capacity
The balance between local and national control for project delivery came up, with the NIC recommending more local delivery. This is especially relevant with more powers for elected mayors.
Attendees observed that local authority capacity was a problem, with pressures on budgets being the critical factor.
This was an important point. Most people support the principle of more devolution, but the next step of fiscal devolution is much more difficult.
The need for certainty
If there was one point that I thought should stay in our minds, it was the need for greater policy certainty.
Easy to say – but in a changing world, not always so easy to deliver.
It’s an important principle, though. Policy certainty leverages private sector investment; companies create skills programmes; government and industry partnerships grow.
The output is better delivery, better value, and quicker timescales.
The burning issue: energy
We had planned time for questions and then networking. I allowed the Q&A to run over because people were clearly highly engaged, showing attendees found the event useful.
I ended the meeting by raising an issue that has been concerning me, is super topical, and a ministerial priority: our power grid and the transmission of power.
Energy has been taken somewhat for granted for many years, simply because we had enough of it. The issue was decarbonisation rather than supply.
The war in Ukraine changed that; “resilience” is now a word you hear all the time across government.
One question to raise is how we can accelerate the supply of domestically generated renewables. Holding that back is grid connectivity.
We had a good discussion, but the conclusion was this is a work in progress. I suspect we will come back to this topic very soon.
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