Can a National Infrastructure Commission really navigate the ‘too difficult’ basket?

Beth West, HS2

Given the quality and robustness of data on supply and demand across UK infrastructure, it should be relatively straight forward to navigate the politics of prioritisation, shouldn’t it?  

Well, probably not. Although the methodology for developing forecasts is well understood, accuracy will usually be based on asset life remaining relatively static and assuming that behaviours don’t change.  

This has been one of the major challenges that we’ve had in modelling the HS2 benefits – our models assume behaviours don’t change but we all intuitively know that they do.  

So that begs the question as to what could change to alter our approach to infrastructure planning? 

Demand management is one change. Smart metering, for example, could see us reducing our electricity or water consumption and revenue management could also smooth rail demand - depending, of course, on the difference offered in the fare.  While these are unlikely to create massive changes in our consumption, they could be enough to impact prioritisation and timing of infrastructure development.

New technology is another change impacting infrastructure, not least as it prompts behaviour change. Will driverless cars decrease the amount of motorway traffic or increase it or see the use of video conferencing impact the amount we travel for business? On the supply side, could micro power generation reduce the need for large scale generating plants or extensive distribution networks?  

All interesting questions to ponder but in reality these issues are likely to be manageable through good scenario analysis to ensure the robustness of our infrastructure development prioritisation is properly tested.  

The biggest question for me is more about what the new National Infrastructure Commission will actually do with this data. And with approximately 75% of the country’s infrastructure outside of government control, what levers will the Commission have to influence the regulated utilities to bring forward or delay programmes?  

We are already seeing skills shortage risks caused by so many infrastructure projects in the pipeline at the same time. Smoothing the delivery of these projects can only be good for the cost of the projects and for the long term employment prospects of individuals working in the sector.  

But if the real issue is how to influence investment decisions and, in particular, how the Commission will impact those investment decisions for projects not funded by Government.

Beth West is commercial director at HS2


Beth raises some important issues around the challenges of planning long term investment in infrastructure at a time when digital technologies have only just begun to influence the ways in which we use infrastructure. But in the background there is a more immediate question of what the NIC will turn out to be. Will it be a National Infrastructure Commission that takes a broad view of our future needs for infrastructure services and of emerging technologies and comes up with outcomes to be achieved through a range of different investment in the networks? Or will it be a National Major Infrastructure Projects Commission that endeavours to achieve a consensus around the delivery of a small number of very large projects that Government has already announced? I hope it is the former but I fear it will be the latter.