A new report by the National Infrastructure Commission warns that the UK is in danger of missing key environmental and social objectives due to slow progress on policy implementation.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has released its Annual Monitoring Report reviewing progress made by the UK government towards delivering on the vision set out in the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS).
That vision encompasses three long-term objectives: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, becoming more resilient to climate change and rebalancing economic opportunity across the country.
However, 18 months on from publication of the NIS, the monitoring report paints a mixed picture, with achievements in some areas undermined by slow progress and policy gaps elsewhere.
Ultimately, the report cautions that failure to address those shortcomings in the year ahead would mean the UK is unlikely to meet its climate mitigation targets, and that adapting its infrastructure to the impacts of climate change will be substantially more challenging.
Infrastructure key to achieving long-term national objectives
The last year has seen a swathe of major policy announcements, including the long-awaited Net Zero Strategy and the Levelling Up White Paper, which the NIC commends for having set clear, long-term objectives for most infrastructure sectors.
Government has backed up ambitious goals with increased investment in economic infrastructure, committing £100bn over the next three years, as well as raising the fiscal remit for the NIC to 1.1% to 1.3% of GDP from 2025.
The establishment of the UK Infrastructure Bank, with its mission to crowd-in investment and address market failures, has further strengthened the funding and financing landscape for net zero and levelling up.
The report also highlights delivery successes in specific sectors – including the rapid expansion of gigabit capable broadband and 4G coverage, and the ongoing increase in renewable energy deployment.
Slow progress puts UK’s climate objectives at risk
Despite these achievements, however, the NIC concludes that overall progress has been too slow, cautioning that the UK is not on track to deliver on many policies and targets in the NIS, which are critical to achieving those long-term national objectives.
Not for the first time, the government has been warned of the risks posed by a widening gap between ambition and delivery.
While the government’s overarching strategies set out the direction of travel, the NIC argues that their effectiveness is undermined by a lack of detailed delivery plans, policy gaps or failures to go far enough.
The Net Zero Strategy for instance leaves unanswered the crucial questions of how much the transition to a decarbonised economy will cost and who will pay.
In the energy sector, the NIC highlights the need to rapidly decarbonise heating as the biggest challenge but points out the lack of delivery plan or clear funding to achieve it, as well as uncertainty about how uptake of energy efficiency measures can be significantly increased.
There is also concern that inaction on decarbonising transport now poses a serious risk to delivering on the Sixth Carbon Budget.
In particular, the NIC highlights slow progress on the roll-out of a nationwide electric vehicle charging network and the absence of a detailed assessment of the infrastructure requirements for transitioning to zero carbon freight.
Given the urgent need for action, ICE is hosting a roundtable next month for international stakeholders to discuss designing effective transport decarbonisation policies with speakers including Young Tae Kim, secretary-general of the International Transport Forum.
Getting devolution right to achieve levelling up
Alongside meeting the UK’s climate goals, the report emphasises that delivering the right economic infrastructure is critical to achieving sustainable economic growth, boosting competitiveness and improving quality of life across the country.
To that end, the NIC welcomes the ambition and scope of the Levelling Up White Paper and its renewed emphasis on devolution, something the NIC called for in its first National Infrastructure Assessment, but which government did not fully endorse in the NIS.
However, to maximise the opportunities arising from devolution, the NIC recommends that the government accelerates the devolution deals and prioritises reforming local infrastructure policy and funding to achieve tangible results by 2030.
The report sets out the case for a shift towards long-term devolved funding settlements for local authorities, beyond the current metro mayors, and support for developing major urban transport schemes in priority cities, akin to the West Yorkshire mass transit system.
With improving regional transport connectivity key to achieving levelling up, the NIC commends the adaptive approach taken by government in the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, which sets out a core pipeline of investment, but notes the cancellation of the plans to build the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway.
Action needed to get implementation back on track
While the past year has brought the government’s long-term vision for infrastructure into clearer focus, the NIC’s report adds to growing concern about slow progress and the cost of inaction.
The NIC rightly emphasises the tight fiscal environment and rising costs of living, meaning that maximising value for money and getting infrastructure delivery right first time is vital.
However, government can no longer avoid answering key questions around who will pay for the new infrastructure required to achieve net-zero and levelling up.
As the NIC points out, addressing this question will require an open and honest dialogue with the public about the costs, while building a compelling narrative about the wider social and economic benefits of infrastructure investment.
That discussion needs to be followed by clear decisions, governance arrangements and delivery plans that close the gap between the government’s admirable ambition and implementation.
To help kickstart that discussion, ICE has recommended that the Treasury Select Committee hold a one-off evidence session for ministers to respond to the warnings in the NIC’s report.