Two recent National Infrastructure Commission reports highlight the potential of the UK’s infrastructure for addressing long-term challenges.
NIC publishes responses to its priorities for second National Infrastructure Assessment
Last year the NIC set out its priorities for the second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2), due in 2023.
They include the digital transformation, decarbonising energy, infrastructure resilience and urban and inter-urban mobility.
The NIC launched a consultation on its approach to NIA2. A new report summarises the evidence received from over 100 stakeholders, including ICE.
ICE’s concerns reflected
Broadly, the responses agreed with the nine challenges identified by the NIC. Some called for more focus on issues including biodiversity loss, infrastructure maintenance and embodied carbon.
ICE’s evidence emphasised the need for strong governance frameworks, systems thinking, sustainable future funding streams and greater devolution to address the nine challenges.
The report also highlights ICE’s concerns about the need to bring the public along on the journey to net zero and references our evidence on ‘pay-as-you-go’ roads in the context of future funding opportunities.
Recognising the scale of the challenge
Strengthening how we plan and finance infrastructure is vital if we’re to deliver the interventions needed to achieve the UK’s long-term objectives like net zero and levelling up.
Indeed, the NIC’s report underlines the scale of the challenge the UK is facing.
On net zero for instance, many respondents agreed that a lack of coordination in key areas such as energy security is adding to the challenge of meeting emissions reduction targets.
There was agreement that greater decentralisation and action led by subnational authorities should be made possible, with opportunities in areas such as localised energy generation.
There was also broad agreement that reducing demand through energy efficiency and changing behaviours were significant opportunities yet to be reasonably addressed.
In contrast, respondents were less confident about the role hydrogen and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) could realistically play in the push to net zero.
As we said in our submission, ICE broadly agrees that the NIC has identified the right challenges.
However, the desired outcomes cannot be addressed in silos - they need joined-up policies to achieve them. It’s vital we look at infrastructure as a complete system that’s interconnected.
It’s therefore encouraging to see our concerns around governance, systems-thinking, funding and devolution raised throughout the report as well as a range of policy options being put forward.
Indeed, with the NIC’s most recent progress report highlighting that policy gaps put the UK’s long-term goals at risk, tackling those issues is urgent.
NIC examines its quality of life objectives
Another recent NIC paper sets out its position on its objective to improve quality of life across the UK.
That’s one of the NIC’s four overarching objectives, along with supporting economic growth, competitiveness and climate mitigation and resilience.
The report is part of a wider exercise to clarify the NIC’s objectives and improve how it measures the contribution its recommendations make towards achieving them.
Understanding quality of life
Quality of life is a broad concept without clear definition. The NIC defines is as ‘an objective and subjective assessment of an individual’s overall wellbeing’.
This considers factors such as an individual’s wealth, health and life satisfaction.
Recent ONS estimates suggest average life satisfaction in the UK declined in 2020-21, perhaps reflecting the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are also regional differences in quality of life across the UK – which the government is seeking to address through the levelling up missions.
Infrastructure and quality of life
The NIC argues that the link between economic infrastructure and quality of life isn’t direct.
It suggests its recommendations could have an impact via multiple areas, including health, surroundings, connections, affordability, convenience and employment.
In general, the impact of economic infrastructure can be positive or negative, although the NIC argues that in many ways infrastructure has solved more problems than it has created.
Nevertheless, while infrastructure provides essential services and benefits for people and the economy, poor planning means it can often negatively affect lives.
Infrastructure can also worsen regional inequalities through variations in supply or level of resilience to hazards.
Putting quality of life at the core of infrastructure planning
Increasing quality of life means improving the benefits through how we plan, build and use infrastructure while minimising its negative effects.
Thus, the report emphasises the importance of good design for ensuring infrastructure has a positive impact on the local and natural environment and on how people use its services.
Good infrastructure design should reflect community needs, enhance feelings of control, complement the natural environment and provide resilience.
It means considering quality of life outcomes at the start of a project, including by engaging with local residents and incorporating their needs.
Indeed, ICE’s recent work on levelling up highlights the benefits of local needs assessments and community engagement for ensuring infrastructure interventions deliver wider social benefits.
Improving data to measure impact
The NIC has developed a framework to measure how infrastructure can improve quality of life.
Objective measures include air quality, data coverage and household spending figures as well as data from user satisfaction surveys.
Nevertheless, the report recognises that in many areas more and better data is needed – particularly at local level.
Focus on the link between infrastructure and quality of life is growing, not least because of the levelling up missions’ aim of raising national well-being and productivity.
Responses to ICE’s recent levelling up consultation highlighted that goals such as levelling up and the climate emergency cannot be addressed individually.
Instead, they must be joined up and tackled with projects and programmes that achieve multiple social and environmental outcomes.
As the NIC’s report notes, this means putting in place strategic frameworks and incorporating principles that make quality of life central to how we plan infrastructure interventions.
ICE will be responding to the NIC’s request for comments on the quality of life discussion paper in time.