2020 must be year of action following “decidedly mixed” progress on infrastructure priorities, says report

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INFRASTRUCTURE spending must be set within a proper long term strategy in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and to face climate change, says the National Infrastructure Commission’s annual report published this week.

The report notes a surge in recent announcements relating to infrastructure programmes, including approval for High Speed 2 and a decision on the preferred route for the central section of East West Rail between Bedford and Cambridge.

However, the report argues, such announcements are seeking to catch up with delays on a range of projects and do not in themselves represent a comprehensive strategy to face the UK’s future infrastructure challenges.

Writing in the foreword of the Commission’s Annual Monitoring Report 2020, Sir John Armitt, Chair of the Commission, welcomes recent spending commitments, while noting ‘money alone can’t make up for months of lost time on some programmes, and government now needs to set these funding pledges within a cohesive long term plan.’

“The UK desperately needs a strategy that looks well beyond this Parliament, setting out infrastructure policy and funding up to 2050”, Sir Armitt states.

“It must contain goals, plans to achieve them, funding to deliver those plans, and deadlines for delivery.

“We look forward to seeing this detailed strategy shortly.

“It will demonstrate the extent to which government is committed to genuinely transformational shifts in its approach to infrastructure, supporting the aspirations of each region of the UK and mapping out the path to net zero.

“It should also provide a refreshed set of accepted recommendations on which we can base next year’s monitoring report – against which we expect to be able to record substantial progress.”

The National Infrastructure Commission was established in 2015 to provide the UK government with impartial, expert advice on major long term infrastructure challenges.

Sir Armitt leads seven other Commissioners with a range of senior experience across infrastructure and economics.

The annual monitoring report is designed to keep track of government progress towards implementing Commission recommendations, where ministers have previously indicated they accept the conclusion of Commission studies and reports.

The Commission’s report highlights:

  • The government’s recent commissioning of an assessment of the rail needs of the Midlands and North of England, which will inform decision-making on the future of transport links between Leeds and Manchester and beyond
  • The need to build upon recent steps to increase flexibility in the UK’s electricity networks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by increasing the proportion of renewable energy sources used to power UK homes and businesses
  • The need to increase public transport capacity in London over the long term, while boosting investment in other parts of the UK. Decisions on future investment – notably Crossrail 2 – are needed soon, learning lessons from the Elizabeth Line and other major projects on cost control, with a fair funding split between central government and London authorities
  • Rates of house building in the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc continue to be well beneath target, with no clear plan to increase the delivery of new homes to maximise the area’s economic potential. While the recent decision on the new Bedford to Cambridge rail route is welcome, clarity is still required on the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway in particular
  • Considerable progress made towards a better cross-government understanding of the value of data and new technologies in boosting UK infrastructure productivity, with several recent developments indicating the government’s commitment to this agenda. However, secure funding for the National Digital Twin Programme is critical to enabling this work to continue.

The report looking back on 2019 does not cover the recommendations made in the Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment, published in July 2018, as government has committed to give its response to those proposals in its forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy.

Earlier this week National Infrastructure Commission named James Heath as their new Chief Executive.