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The 3 areas that the UK’s next National Infrastructure Assessment must address  

18 October 2021

Following a consultation from members, ICE has published a policy paper that makes nine recommendations for the UK's second NIA.

The 3 areas that the UK’s next National Infrastructure Assessment must address  
Maintaining existing infrastructure must be a key part of the second NIA, says ICE. Image credit: Shutterstock

There is real potential to improve the quality, accessibility, efficiency and sustainability of the UK’s infrastructure with the upcoming second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

ICE has published a paper with nine recommendations – grouped into three broad areas – that NIA2 must cover.

This follows on from a consultation asking members what should be in NIA2. We received a number of detailed submissions which, alongside an event held with the NIC last month, have helped shape our recommendations.

What should be prioritised in NIA2?

Firstly, we need to prioritise climate action and sustainability. The net-zero target is less than 30 years away and will require both a transformation of our infrastructure systems, and the minimisation of carbon emissions produced through construction and operation.

Secondly, we need to look to our existing infrastructure assets and networks. Understanding their condition and ensuring we can maintain and upgrade them will be vital in saving both costs and carbon, as well as making them more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

And thirdly, we need to consider how we actually deliver all of this. Reformed governance structures, building up local capability, and understanding what capacity we need are all vital to ensure the public get the infrastructure they need.

The climate emergency

At the time of the first NIA, much less was known about how we would decarbonise our infrastructure. The most significant policy announcement since has been the 2050 net-zero target, which was explored in great detail by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) in last year’s Sixth Carbon Budget.

This included analysis that showed we can expect a substantial roll-out of technology such as hydrogen, electric vehicle charging, significantly more renewables, carbon capture and storage, energy storage, commercial heat pumps, and more. This is why we are recommending that NIA2 aligns as closely as possible with the CCC’s work.

Our work also identified that there is no formal system of governance for translating net-zero targets into action. Our infrastructure operates as a ‘system of systems’, and cannot be considered in isolation. NIA2 needs to consider what governance system can best deliver net-zero infrastructure, so we can have a coherent, fair, cost-effective net-zero transition.

Crucially, we also need to look at what we're building and how we're building it. Projects committed to now will lock in carbon emissions to 2050 and beyond. To that end, we are recommending that the upkeep and improvement of existing infrastructure should be reviewed within NIA2 to avoid rebuilding where possible and minimise the impacts of embodied and operational carbon.

Maintenance must be further up the agenda

Most of the infrastructure that will support us to 2050 already exists, and will do so for many years after.

With the impacts of climate change becoming ever more apparent, there is a need to better understand the current condition of assets, their structural integrity, the maintenance measures needed to improve their operation and resilience, as well as the impacts new infrastructure could have on our existing systems.

We are recommending that NIA2 should set out the state of existing infrastructure networks and the maintenance required to bring them up to scratch to meet our national objectives.

It’s also important to look to our digital infrastructure networks. The Covid-19 pandemic showed that, when it came to large parts of the workforce operating remotely, our existing fibre digital infrastructure is robust – but unfortunately not for everyone.

NIA2 should consider measures to ensure everyone nationwide has the same opportunities, alongside improving connections for future technology.

It’s likely that remote working trends will continue, so NIA2 should also review our future connectivity needs against that increased demand.

How can we deliver all of this?

It's important that NIA2 considers the infrastructure capacity that must be built to meet our national objectives, as well as how best to deliver it. Given the scale and pace required to meet our targets, NIA2 should provide guidance and benchmarks to the government on how long investment programmes should take to complete.

We also need to look at delivery at a sub-national level. We’ve seen some powers devolved to metro mayors in recent years, but we have to ensure strong governance structures are in place, and that investment is being targeted at the right outcomes.

We believe it’s important that NIA2 makes recommendations for how sub-national infrastructure decision-making should evolve. Strengthening the ability for the infrastructure planning and prioritisation system to get it ‘right first time’ is imperative, which means local and sub-national actors need empowering.

What are the next steps?

The NIC will be publishing a baseline assessment next month, in which will set out the current state of national infrastructure alongside key themes and challenges that it proposes to address in NIA2.

This will form the foundation of NIA2, which will be officially published in 2023. While there is still some time to go, ICE will continue to engage with the NIC and other stakeholders in order to ensure that NIA2 reflects the most important challenges the infrastructure system faces not just now, but in the decades to come.

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  • Keith Howells, president 2022/23 at Institution of Civil Engineers