Infrastructure plans – public says “get on with it, (but do it right)”

The public sees the importance of infrastructure but more needs to be done to promote its value to the nation.

New research on public attitudes to infrastructure development has an encouraging message for the industry, but many challenges lie ahead, says Ben Marshall.

Hinkley Point. HS2. Heathrow, Gatwick. Little Plumpton. Infrastructure has been in the news of late and the government’s in-tray includes some big decisions about big-budget projects. Thinking in Whitehall is apparently edging towards borrowing to build and a more pragmatic, civic-minded approach to infrastructure; more about jam today (or at least not decades hence), balancing the needs of consumers and citizens.

The changes in emphasis and rhetoric have followed a Brexit vote which brought into sharp focus the need for government to stimulate national and local economies in efficient, equitable ways. Laying track, building runways, upgrading our roads and energy sources, can all help, but if we build it, will they come?; how should we do it?; and will it be worth the effort and money?

With these questions in mind, Ipsos MORI undertook a survey in Britain and 25 other countries asking the public in each how they rated infrastructure, additionally gauging their priorities for improvement and attitudes towards delivery. 

Infrastructure leaders, including the government, will be cheered that:

1. The premise is clear. 76% are of the view that investment in infrastructure is vital to future economic growth. This sentiment is shared by different geographies and demographic groups.

2. There is recognition that action is needed. 60% agree that we are not doing enough as a country to meet our infrastructure needs. 

3. There is backing for borrowing to fund investment. 44% support this – substantially higher than the global and G8 averages (34% and 31% respectively) – while 16% are opposed and 40% are unsure either way. 

4. Twice as many are comfortable with the idea of foreign investment as are not. 42% say they are fine with it if projects can be delivered more quickly as a result; 20% aren’t. This makes Britons fairly pragmatic and a little more comfortable with foreign investment than G8 countries, but government caution is warranted by the 38% who aren’t sure. 

There are several challenges (and opportunities). In particular:

1. The image of infrastructure. 48%, agree that Britain ‘has a poor record at getting national infrastructure projects right’ (12% disagree), despite only 29% dissatisfaction with the country’s infrastructure. 

2. Many just don’t know. At every turn, our survey picked up a large chunk of people struggling to give an answer one way or another. Infrastructure is not a word on everyone’s lips and opinions are often very conditional on the detail.

3. All infrastructure is local. 67% justify delays to infrastructure projects if it means that local communities’ views can be heard properly, a higher proportion than the 59% in G8 countries. The public are very sensitive to winners and losers. This can be seen in some of the reaction to the approval of plans for fracking in Little Plumpton. More generally, we find people anxious about change but also fearful of stagnation.

4. New housing supply and flooding. Both of these are among top priorities for Brits, probably because of extensive media coverage and their wide reach, but neither fit neatly within the National Infrastructure Commission’s remit. 

These factors make up a complex and changing socio-cultural backdrop that infrastructure leaders must navigate to ‘land’ projects so that they are welcomed and cherished. November’s Autumn Statement will be a key moment in taking the story about Britain’s infrastructure forward, but building a narrative about better infrastructure for a better Britain will take concerted effort. 

This isn’t just about communications, PR and reputation management, important though these are. It also about the way infrastructure is done; the way it is planned, delivered, managed and evaluated. 

The message from the public is ‘Get on with it (but do it right)’. The infrastructure story must be well told, but in the years ahead that story must turn into fact, not fiction.

Ben Marshall is research director at Ipsos MORI, who work with infrastructure leaders, using insights to support design, delivery, marketing and evaluation.