Today’s Queen’s Speech outlined proposals needed to push forward urgent energy and transport programmes, but difficult questions must still be addressed to deliver energy security, net zero and levelling up.
The UK government set out its legislative agenda for the 2022-23 session of Parliament in today’s Queen Speech.
The proposals focused on driving economic growth, easing the cost of living and levelling up opportunity.
A new Energy Security Bill and Transport Bill will mean significant changes across the infrastructure sector and some important choices for MPs and ministers to tackle.
Here's a look at the key announcements and their implications.
1. Energy security
As expected, the government announced a new Energy Security Bill to implement some of the proposals set out in its recent energy security strategy – pledging “cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy”.
That strategy intends to strengthen the UK’s energy independence in the context of rising energy prices and supply issues following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The new bill is expected to create a new independent body, the Future System Operator (FSO), to oversee a whole-system view of Britain’s energy sector.
2. Net zero
As the energy security strategy noted, decarbonising energy is key for achieving secure, independent supply and meeting the UK’s climate objectives.
The FSO will therefore be tasked with ensuring energy resilience on the transition to net zero.
Its remit will include integrating existing networks with emerging technologies, such as hydrogen.
It will also work with energy suppliers and networks to balance the UK’s electricity systems as demand rises in sectors such as transport with the growth in electric vehicles.
The Energy Security Bill is also expected to provide financing models for hydrogen and carbon capture technologies.
As the IPCC recently highlighted, unlocking markets to deploy large-scale emergent technologies is essential to achieve net zero.
However, it’s unclear how much the bill will help to reduce energy demand, for instance by retrofitting homes.
Addressing this is vital if the UK is to develop a secure, low carbon energy system in the timeframe required.
3. Levelling Up
When the government published its Levelling Up White Paper earlier this year, it promised further legislation to enshrine the 12 missions in law and establish a duty to report annually on progress.
Today’s speech confirmed there will be a new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill focused on local growth.
It will include new powers for local leaders to rejuvenate town centres, including taking control of empty premises.
The government has until 2030 to deliver tangible outcomes on the levelling up missions. Therefore, it’s vital we see concrete developments over the next year in the form of a delivery plan.
As expected, there was no standalone Planning Bill announced today. Proposed changes to the planning system intended to accelerate house building have met with strong opposition.
Instead, some more modest reforms are expected be included in the Local Growth Bill.
These could include the proposed new infrastructure levy. However, in our consultation response, ICE cautioned that the levy would be inappropriate for major infrastructure projects as it’d be unable to mitigate their impacts on communities.
Also announced was a new Transport Bill that will codify many of the proposals set out in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail to modernise rail services and improve the customer experience.
These include the creation of Great British Railways to oversee the reformed system, which will reintegrate track and train operations under a single organisation.
In addition, the High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill will be carried over from the previous session.
The Integrated Rail Plan for the Midlands and North received a mixed response last year. Thus, the future shape and delivery of High Speed 2 and wider rail upgrades will likely continue to be key issues over the next Parliament.
Likewise, the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on public transport use and the financial sustainability of operators remains an open question.
Given the wider economic, social and environmental benefits of public transport, how we resolve this will be crucial for the UK’s ability to achieve other long-term objectives.
5. The UK Infrastructure Bank
As expected, the government will bring forward legislation to put the UK Infrastructure Bank on a statutory footing.
The UK Infrastructure Bank Bill will provide further strategic clarity for the bank to make investments within its overarching objectives of helping deliver net-zero and level up the country.
Recently, the chancellor asked the bank to prioritise the UK’s energy security push by supporting projects that help reduce fossil fuel dependence.
The government also indicated it would provide a definition of infrastructure in the new Bill, ensuring the bank has the flexibility to invest in projects across different sectors.
The bank is set to publish its first strategic plan in June.
The UK is at a critical moment for delivering on the government’s overarching objectives, notably the 2050 net zero target and levelling up.
In the year since the previous Queen’s Speech the government has published a number of long-awaited strategies.
However, the concern we expressed a year ago remains – namely that ambition is not being backed up with tough policy choices and detailed delivery plans.
In March, the National Infrastructure Commission warned that policy gaps and inaction are putting the UK’s long term infrastructure goals at risk.
Elsewhere, the Public Accounts Committee has highlighted unanswered questions critical for delivering net zero – in particular, how it will be paid for.
The energy crisis and rising inflation, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has created additional difficulties for infrastructure planning and delivery.
Pressure on consumers means there is a need for an open and honest conversation with the public about the costs and wider benefits of the net-zero transition.
The bills announced today show signs of the government’s intent to deliver on its ambition with several necessary proposals to push forward urgent programmes.
However, without further action to tackle difficult questions, address policy gaps and provide detailed delivery plans, the infrastructure system will struggle to fulfil its potential in helping address long-term challenges.
To that end, the role a single national policy statement could play in speeding up planning for new infrastructure is one area MPs could decide on in the coming year.