No sign of infrastructure gear change

Rarely has the need for speed in increasing investment in the UK’s infrastructure been more evident, but prevarication and delay seems to be the order of the day. That is the clear message from the latest review of infrastructure progress – or the lack of it – made by government in the past year from its independent adviser the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

The NIC’s Infrastructure Progress Review acknowledges that government has ambitious goals for infrastructure, but, in many areas, it is not delivering fast enough. NIC says the United Kingdom faces long term challenges, from slow economic growth to delivering net zero, and to meet these challenges government needs a long term infrastructure policy that it consistently delivers on. Which is precisely what it does not have.

NIC’s review looks at government progress over the past year against its previous recommendations. The message is that progress wasn’t good before, and it hasn’t got any better. Things in fact might have got even worse. NIC Chair Sir John Armitt says in his introduction that if the Commission saw 2021 as a year of slow progress in many areas, ‘in 2022 movement has stuttered further just as the need for acceleration has heightened. There have been negligible advances in improving the energy efficiency of UK homes, the installation of low carbon heating solutions or securing a sustainable balance of water supply and demand.’

There have been some advances, Sir John concedes, but taking a strategic view on the recent pace of planning and delivery suggests a significant gap between long term ambition and current performance. “To get back on track, we need a change of gear in infrastructure policy,” he insists.

This will mean fewer low stakes incremental changes and the placing of some bigger strategic bets, backed by public funding where necessary. Sir John says the risk of delay in addressing climate change is now greater than the risk of over correction. “We must have the staying power to stick to long-term plans, to spare cost increases that come with a stop-start approach and to give investors greater confidence in the UK.”

Sir John warns that a further year of prevarication risks losing momentum in critical areas like achieving the statutory net zero target. “Rarely has the need for speed been more evident,” he says.

Unfortunately, the warning comes hot on the heels of news that the government looks like rowing back on its commitment to what is billed as the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, HS2. Government spending watchdog the National Audit Office has warned that delaying plans will add to costs for the dubious benefit of saving short term spending.

Costs associated with the delay will arise from supply chains stopping and restarting, contractual changes and the overhead costs of managing sites for longer, the NAO said.

Earlier in March ministers announced plans to delay the Birmingham to Crewe leg of the railway after also slimming down plans for Euston station in 2020. But the NAO report found the new plan was now £400 million more expensive than the original.

There is no sign of upping an infrastructure investment gear from the government, and until it learns to take advice from its advisers and value for money overseers such as the NAO, there is unlikely to be any.

Nick Barrett