"An important moment": Industry reacts to interim infrastructure assessment


Industry has largely welcomed the focus of the National Infrastructure Commission's interim National Infrastructure Assessment. The chair of the NIC, Lord Adonis, launched its latest report calling on government to tackle the “three Cs” of congestion, capacity and carbon. Among a long list of things that must be addressed to prevent a strangling of the UK’s economy, he also said city and regional authorities must step up the pace with drawing up their own infrastructure plans and do a lot more to tackle cities' air quality crisis.

Industry figures drew their own highlights from NIC’s assessment. Arcadis’ head of research, Simon Rawlinson, said the NIC’s analysis shows it’s time government stopped sweating assets and put more into adding the new infrastructure needed.

“For instance, the digital infrastructure needed to enable autonomous vehicles is not in place and represents a transformational opportunity for the UK. Less obvious is the undeniable fact that, under Paris climate accords, all heating of UK homes will need to be decarbonised, presenting a remarkable opportunity to develop world-leading skills in climate change mitigation.”

Turner & Townsend’s managing director for infrastructure, Patricia Moore, said the NIC has set out a bold vision, but the focus now has to be on delivery and how the priorities of the infrastructure assessment can be addressed against a backdrop of limited public funds, low productivity in the construction industry and a growing skills shortage:

“The hard reality is that delivering the NIA priorities will be expensive and at a time of constrained spending, cannot be financed from the public purse alone. Ultimately our ability to attract private investment into UK infrastructure will make or break the NIC’s vision,” she said.

“Government needs to facilitate both foreign and home-grown investment into the sector, encouraging a diversity of funding methods which reflect the needs of specific schemes.  It also needs to de-risk private sector investment in the form of policy support for the projects the assessment sets out.”

Mark Elsey, infrastructure partner at law firm Ashurst, echoed the NIC’s call for greater transparency and open debate on the relative costs and benefits of public and private funding models, at a time when PFI and PPP approaches have come under scrutiny.

“From our position at the coalface of making deals such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel and the Mersey Gateway Bridge work, we would wholeheartedly support both public and private funding routes as critical to future success for the UK economy,” Elsey said.

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, described the NIC’s interim assessment as “an important moment, setting out long-term priorities”. In particular he singled out transition towards a low-carbon energy system as posing enormous challenges for the UK electricity and gas networks.

“This transition requires careful planning to ensure the cost of extensive infrastructure investment is shared out fairly among tax and bill payers,” he said. “Almost 10% of small businesses generate their own electricity, but a wider roll-out of renewable energy and electric vehicles can’t happen without significant progress in improving our energy network.”

Core Cities UK chair, Leeds City Council leader, Judith Blake, said: “The UK’s infrastructure is currently not fit for purpose and is holding back economic growth particularly in the UK’s biggest cities. This must be addressed as we approach Brexit, and as the human costs of poor Air Quality become ever more apparent.

“This is an issue for all UK cities, recognising that our economy relies on London and all the Core Cities being able to deliver more. But we also cannot expect cities outside the South East to accept delayed or reversed decisions on infrastructure commitments while others go ahead. As a nation we need to move on from an ‘either-or’ process of decision making, investing to grow the whole of our economy and creating more freedom in local decision making to speed up the process and reduce costs.”