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Infrastructure blog

ICE’s top three priorities for the UK’s new prime minister

25 October 2022

With Rishi Sunak confirmed as the UK’s new prime minister, the ICE outlines what he should prioritise regarding infrastructure. 

ICE’s top three priorities for the UK’s new prime minister
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has warned of "difficult decisions" ahead. Image credit: ICE

It's been a whirlwind few weeks in Westminster.

After a Conservative Party leadership election over the summer, which saw Liz Truss installed as the UK’s prime minister, she has since been replaced by Rishi Sunak.

Major challenges such as the cost-of-living and energy crises have not gone away, while Mr Sunak has warned of “difficult decisions” ahead as the UK enters into a “profound economic crisis”.

Here are the top three infrastructure issues that ICE thinks should be in Mr Sunak’s in-tray.

1. Quick action needed on net zero

Time is of the essence when it comes to climate action.

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) latest progress report highlighted the gap between the UK’s 2050 net zero target and realistic policy to achieve it.

Meanwhile, we’re already seeing the effects of a warming world through the record temperatures across the UK this year.

During the leadership campaign over the summer, Mr Sunak pledged to create a Department for Energy and make the UK energy independent by 2045 by massively expanding the nation’s offshore wind capacity.

He also pledged not to build onshore wind farms, which is at odds with Ms Truss’s commitment as PM to ensure planning consent for onshore wind is brought in line with other infrastructure.

Action is needed to:

  • co-ordinate net zero across all levels of government – including to ensure infrastructure-related outcomes from levelling up and net zero are aligned, as ICE recommended earlier this year,
  • ensure more focus is given to reducing energy demand, and
  • fill in the gaps in the Net Zero Strategy, including plans to decarbonise the power grid by 2035.

Who pays and how to pay for a fair net zero transition are politically complex questions. Particularly now that inflation is squeezing the public’s spending capacity.

Public support needs to be based on a realistic understanding of the changes that are needed to our infrastructure system.

At the same time, policy frameworks themselves need to be designed to benefit the public and protect livelihoods.

Evidence shows that the net zero transition is affordable – delays and inaction are not.

2. More detail on next steps for the Integrated Rail Plan

We need to see real progress in delivering the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP).

While the £96 billion plan represents the biggest public investment in rail, detail is sorely lacking. Furthermore, we’re no closer to certainty on when the public will see the benefits of improved rail services.

While Ms Truss only recently announced that she was committed to building the full Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals, it is unclear where Mr Sunak stands on the issue.

This lack of detail is why the ICE and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure recently produced a report looking at how delivery of the IRP can be sped up.

This includes the need for a National Transport Strategy, and what principles should be used for adding projects to the IRP’s core pipeline.

Public transport has a key role to play in rebalancing the economy to level up underperforming regions and transitioning to net zero.

There’s little time to lose in delivering the major strategic infrastructure projects needed to achieve those goals.

3. Keeping up momentum on delivery

Staying the course where things are working is important.

While new prime ministers like to put their own stamp on things, it’s vital that we reinforce the progress made in previous years, such as the launch of the National Infrastructure Strategy.

We need to ensure the new PM continues the recent momentum on bringing greater efficiency to delivering infrastructure programmes.

This includes the refresh of the Transforming Infrastructure Performance programme and the publication of the Construction Playbook.

The policy tools are in place. The emphasis should now be on driving implementation across government departments and seeing a step-change in the delivery of infrastructure projects and programmes.

Efficiency in delivery is even more important with inflation predicted to be running at 15% by early 2023.

What will the new PM’s first few months look like?

The economic crisis, primarily driven by rising inflation and energy prices, is expected to dominate policy discussions once a new PM is in place.

A medium term fiscal plan on 31 October is likely to set out some of Mr Sunak’s “difficult decisions”, and will provide an indication as to where his policies differ from the previous PM’s.

If energy prices remain as high as they currently are, the transition to a net zero energy system will ultimately result in a significant national cost saving.

The new PM needs to explain how investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and decarbonising transport are answers to the cost-of-living crisis, not the causes of it.

ICE will continue to work with decision makers across the political spectrum to ensure the public get the infrastructure they need and can trust it will be delivered.

  • David Hawkes, head of policy at ICE