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Infrastructure blog

Will government waste the opportunity of the National Infrastructure Assessment? 

10 July 2019

One year on from the publication of the National Infrastructure Assessment, we await the government’s response. Politicians are at risk of missing the opportunity to tackle Britain’s challenges.

Will government waste the opportunity of the National Infrastructure Assessment? 
Image credit: MiraviArt/Pixabay

The world is changing rapidly. A range of factors that will impact society are converging, including population growth, demographic shifts and rapid urbanisation, but above all else we have the burning platform of a burning planet that urgently needs to be addressed.

Infrastructure has been core to solving societal problems in the past and it remains core today. Investing timely, effectively and efficiently in the right infrastructure has a central role to play in addressing the challenges above, or we risk condemning ourselves and future generations to living in slums while grappling with extreme climate conditions.

Societal challenges don’t go away if you ignore them, they only get more costly

It was with this in mind that the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was set up in the UK. An independent body tasked with looking ahead across the coming decades to identify the key challenges and opportunities and how infrastructure can be used to address them.

Politicians of all stripes would then have a ready body of evidence to use to make their decisions on infrastructure in a timely manner.

History has shown, that where decisions on infrastructure aren't made, the underlying challenges don’t go away, but simply grow in impact and potential cost if not addressed.

Delaying a decision is a decision in itself; a decision to cost the taxpayer more through missed benefits, achieved through more optimised infrastructure networks; and to cost the taxpayer more through higher project costs when solutions have to be accelerated to meet the need.

The Committee on Climate Change in its 2019 Progress Report to Parliament has warned of the impact of delay today, noting that while the government has legislated for a net-zero emissions target, ‘action to curb greenhouse gas emissions is lagging far behind what is needed, even to meet previous, less stringent, emissions targets’.

One year on from the National Infrastructure Assessment

July 10 marks one year on since the NIC’s work, the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), was published. A world-beating body of evidence, the NIA set out in detail the key steps needed to address congestion, capacity constraints and carbon emissions across Britain.

However, the true benefit of the NIA is that it's an endowment of solid evidence for the country to start the conversation now, on the best options for the future, to maximise benefits and minimise costs and impact.

The government was supposed to respond within one year to the NIA, however this has been pushed to autumn 2019, given other domestic political considerations. There's now a risk that the NIA will be wasted.

Despite warm words about infrastructure and the National Infrastructure Commission from both candidates - Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt - vying to be the next prime minister, action once in post will be important. This includes moving swiftly to direct the efforts of government towards responding robustly to the NIA before the end of the year.

While politicians across the spectrum are rightly focussed on how best to deliver the result of the Brexit referendum, they can’t allow Britain’s challenges to slip down the agenda.

Fortunately, in the NIA they've been given a ready set of solutions to some of the knottier long-term challenges that require decisions today. They shouldn’t let that opportunity go to waste.

  • Chris Richards, director of policy at Institution of Civil Engineers