Based in London, I’m a senior leader in...
Connectivity / A better way to deliver UK infrastructure
The recent announcement that the UK government has finally struck a deal to build a much-needed nuclear power station is good news. But overall I am increasingly frustrated about the way the delivery of major infrastructure projects is treated as a political football in the UK. Fortunately, I believe that the National Infrastructure Commission recommended by the Armitt Review is a huge step to achieving the efficient delivery of infrastructure on which the nation’s long-term prosperity depends.
As a consequence of the Victorians’ foresight and investment, Britain’s infrastructure was the envy of the rest of the world, and it has served us well for the past 150 years. However, the chronic under-investment of the past 50 years now sees the UK ranked 28th in the world for overall quality of infrastructure, according to the World Economic Forum.
The root cause of this demise is that plans for transformational development are bogged down, some might say sabotaged, by political debate and the labyrinthine processes of planning approvals. Why do we allow major projects to follow a stop-start process dominated by the political cycle?
Crossrail was first proposed in 1943. The plans for delivery made it to Parliament in 1991. But it was 2008 before powers were granted – and it will be 2018 before it opens. After the coalition came to power in 2010 there were strong political pressures to cancel it. Fortunately, it wasn’t cancelled and, like the M25, I suspect that one year after it opens we won’t know how London survived without it. There has to be a better way.
Whether the UK invests in its railways or roads is a political decision, which warrants democratic debate at all levels. But this debate should be informed by a long-term infrastructure strategy and underpinned by an evidence-based assessment of the current and future needs of the country. Governments must realise that private sector developers are reluctant to invest in infrastructure projects whilst their evolution is subject to changes and delays that are influenced by politics.
The previous Labour and current coalition governments have set great store by the fact that they have a National Infrastructure Plan (NIP), but this is little more than a wish list for major transport, water, IT, energy and environmental projects. The NIP is not a plan for their delivery.
For the last ten months, Sir John Armitt has been undertaking an independent review of long-term infrastructure planning and I have been a keen contributor on several themes. Although 'The Armitt Review' was commissioned by the Labour Party, it is non-partisan in its proposals.
The review proposes an independent statutory body, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which will have the teeth to hold government to account; it will be highly influential and staffed by a wide range of experts. It will assess and advise the government on a ten-year cycle of evidence-based, 25-30 year infrastructure strategies for the UK – the National Infrastructure Assessment.
The sector infrastructure plans are the strongest recommendation from Armitt, since they will provide the schedule – the time frame, potential vehicles, funding options – for delivery of the Assessment. Ratification of the plans – or not – will allow observers to assess whether politicians are seeking the populist vote and ignoring evidential need. The NIC will then monitor year-by-year the performance of successive governments against these plans.
I am delighted by this output. ‘The Armitt Review’ has endeavoured to work within the constraints of the UK political system to create the opportunity for a long-term infrastructure delivery strategy. It will rely heavily on the right people driving it forward, but if the NIC is successful, I believe it will enable the government to make informed and efficient decisions on infrastructure provision.
Not only this, but it will also give confidence to investors to invest long-term in UK infrastructure development. And, for the construction industry, it will clarify the future pipeline of work across a wide range of infrastructure, thereby reducing costs.