The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) joined parliamentarians to discuss its latest Infrastructure Progress Review.
On 29 March 2023, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) co-hosted a private roundtable with the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).
The discussion took place just after the launch of the NIC’s Infrastructure Progress Review – its annual monitor of government action on the commission’s infrastructure policy recommendations.
Summary of the Infrastructure Progress Review
Many areas of infrastructure are key to achieving the government’s economic growth and climate commitments. Despite some areas of progress, though, overall efforts to turn targets into delivery have been lacklustre.
This year’s report acknowledges positive progress in areas such as decarbonising the electricity system, trailblazer devolution deals, and delivery of gigabit-capable broadband.
But we've found that progress has been slow elsewhere:
- Reducing the UK’s reliance on gas, decarbonising heating, and delivering ambitious targets for heat pumps.
- Increasing water supply and reducing water demand.
- Specifying long-term targets for flood resilience.
- Improving recycling rates.
To get back on track, the NIC says that the government needs to ensure its policies have staying power. They should achieve long-term goals and commit to fewer, but bigger and more strategic, central interventions.
The government should also continue to devolve funding and decision making and remove barriers to delivery on the ground.
Striking the right balance
The balance between national and local policymaking was a recurring theme in our conversation with parliamentarians.
A longstanding challenge is the question of when to take a strategic approach to infrastructure nationally, and when to devolve power and decision making locally.
Participants also discussed the role of regulation in enabling investment and delivery.
Regulation is a barrier in many areas. Some questioned the extent to which regulators are responsive to strategic planning or place enough emphasis on long-term goals such as the net zero target.
Others noted the dangers of sectoral silos, reinforced by the current regulatory model.
Participants agreed that the government should provide regulators with appropriate strategic direction and/or statutory duties to allow them to respond comprehensively and effectively to major challenges and opportunities.
The planning and capacity gap
Two more issues that arose were the lack of national strategies in areas such as the electricity grid and transport, as well as local capacity to respond to regional needs.
Participants noted that greater devolution will require a boost in institutional capacity to ensure local authorities can make the most of the opportunities that additional funding and responsibilities afford them.
The need for long-term certainty
Echoing the NIC’s findings, participants agreed that the lack of long-term policy certainty remains a key factor in failure to deliver on targets.
Citing underinvestment and increasing costs for transport projects such as HS2, participants noted that stable policy and delivery, rather than delay and repeated review, may have led to better outcomes.
Similarly, in sectors where the private sector is not investing, a lack of long-term stable policy is often at the core of the issue.
Private bodies are unlikely to invest without a stable policy and regulatory environment, and clarity on subsidies and incentives. A lack of clarity has recently led to under-delivery in areas such as electric vehicle charging.
Participants also discussed more specific areas of infrastructure policy, including:
- The extent to which technology such as carbon capture and hydrogen is proven.
- How far using energy from waste might disincentivise individual recycling.
- Whether the government is taking the right approach on heat pumps to change behaviour and deliver more installations.
The NIC will publish its second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) later in 2023, framing the challenge for the next 30 years of UK infrastructure.
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