Research on attitudes towards infrastructure suggests the public is confident that the UK’s infrastructure can improve quality of life, but there are still important lessons to heed for policymakers and industry.
ICE recently reviewed the impact of the UK’s strategic infrastructure planning and prioritisation framework, which is now built around independent and impartial advice from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).
The framework has been beneficial, most notably through the provision of a clear, well-evidenced plan to help policymakers and industry members navigate unprecedented political and socio-economic uncertainty due to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ultimately, the framework can only be deemed a success if it delivers the infrastructure the UK public needs while enabling the country to meet long-term challenges such as population growth, rebalancing the economy and achieving net-zero.
Taking stock of how the public feels about the UK’s infrastructure planning and provision will help assess how the strategic framework is performing against that objective.
1. Public confidence in the UK’s infrastructure is high
Last year, the NIC commissioned research on public attitudes to infrastructure as it prepares for the second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) in 2023.
Overall, the findings were positive. A clear majority of respondents agreed that good infrastructure is essential for their quality of life and were confident that infrastructure will meet people’s needs over the next 30 years.
In fact, public confidence in infrastructure has increased across all sectors – digital, energy, water, transport, solid waste and flood management – since the NIC conducted the first NIA in 2017. Of those sectors, confidence was highest in digital infrastructure (87%) and lowest in flood management (61%).
2. The public agrees that addressing climate change should be a priority
The public wants to see quality infrastructure and long-term planning to help meet future challenges.
Of those challenges, respondents ranked the environment as the most important factor to consider when planning future infrastructure. In fact, its importance has risen in the public’s view since 2017 relative to other concerns, such as investing now to save in the long term.
With the government committed to delivering net-zero by 2050, and the Climate Change Committee warning of the scale of the challenge to get there, strong public support for infrastructure leading the way is encouraging, especially given the urgent need to cut emissions from energy, heating and transport.
Rebalancing the economy was not rated as high a priority for infrastructure. Nevertheless, the research suggests there is significant dissatisfaction with the level of infrastructure provision in different parts of the UK.
Two-fifths of respondents felt that their region received lower than average investment – this sentiment was highest in the North of England, Yorkshire and the Humber and Wales, as well as in small towns, villages and hamlets.
3. People are increasingly willing to take personal action on climate change …
While there appears to be growing consensus around the UK’s long-term challenges, particularly climate change, implementing the necessary solutions through infrastructure interventions will require public understanding and support.
In particular, the transition to a net-zero economy will have a major impact on lifestyles, while meeting the costs will have implications for public spending and consumer bills.
Public awareness of the net-zero target itself is growing, according to regular research by BEIS. Almost nine in 10 people (87%) now have some awareness of net-zero, but knowledge is far lower with less than half (46%) understanding “at least a fair amount” about it.
In recent research by Copper Consultancy, when net-zero was explained, most respondents agreed that personal behaviours need to change to achieve the target (54%), were willing to take personal action (74%), and felt that acting now would improve prospects for future generations (76%).
There was also some suggestion that the public would support even bolder action in tackling climate change, with over half (53%) lacking confidence in what government is doing today.
4. … but are uncertain about the trade-offs and who should pay
Encouragingly, in the NIC’s research, 60% of respondents agreed with prioritising action on climate change even if it means higher electricity and heating bills – a significant increase from 2017 when just over 40% agreed.
However, when Copper Consultancy posed the question of how we should pay for net zero, there was no consensus. Half of respondents would be willing to pay more if they could continue with the same behaviours as today, but only a third were willing to pay more tax to fund green infrastructure.
5. Building strong narratives around infrastructure projects is essential
The research provides important insight for how we appraise infrastructure proposals, increase public confidence in the system and build support for major projects.
The public values quick decision-making, efficiency and staying on time and within budget – but there are other important factors to consider.
In Copper Consultancy’s research, a strong majority (69%) felt new infrastructure projects should explain how they are addressing climate change, and 46% of people said they were most likely to support a project that delivers local benefits.
It is also clear that the public believes infrastructure provision, and the costs of that infrastructure, should be fairly distributed.
This supports ICE’s own findings that we need to think carefully about the narratives we shape around infrastructure projects and be better at talking to the public about the benefits of major infrastructure projects, rather than focusing on the costs.
Putting factors such as local impact, climate mitigation and fairness at the heart of those narratives can help us shape a system that is transparent, trusted and responsive to the public’s needs.