‘Government must define the role of transport infrastructure in meeting national objectives,' says Transport Committee

ICE analyses the Transport Committee’s report into the appraisal and delivery of major transport infrastructure projects.

Hanover Square construction. Image credit: Crossrail
Hanover Square construction. Image credit: Crossrail
  • Updated: 29 September, 2021
  • Author: David McNaught, ICE Policy Manager

Following an inquiry earlier this year, the Transport Committee has published a report calling on government to provide more detail about how transport infrastructure will help deliver key national objectives.

ICE submitted written and oral evidence to the inquiry, which has been cited in the report, highlighting the need to adapt to uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic and provide long-term planning to avoid skills gaps.

What does the Transport Committee report say?

The report welcomes the strategic priorities identified by the government in the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) – namely, post-Covid economic recovery, addressing regional inequalities, and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

However, the committee expressed concern about the lack of detailed metrics and defined outcomes for these priorities, which ICE highlighted in its evidence to the inquiry.

This lack of detail could undermine the design and delivery of major projects linked to these objectives, as well as the ability of Parliament and the public to judge the effectiveness of infrastructure plans.

In particular, the committee calls on the government to clarify how transport can contribute to reducing regional inequalities in its forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper.

The committee also noted that the government may need to amend the NIS to take account of the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic since the strategy’s publication 10 months ago.

This should involve examining whether the major transport projects set out in the NIS will still deliver their intended strategic benefits, particularly in the context of shifts in public transport usage and travel patterns. This is something raised in an ICE discussion paper on future public transport funding from earlier this year.

In the context of changing priorities, ICE Fellow Jonathan Spruce is quoted in the report highlighting the benefits of low regret interventions that address public need. This could include accelerating active travel investment, which is vital to help achieve net zero.

Improving project appraisal and delivery

ICE’s evidence to the committee highlighted the benefits of recent revisions to the Green Book that shift assessment away from a purely cost-benefit analysis to a more strategic approach. The committee agreed that such a shift in thinking is beneficial for appraisals and calls for a “benefit-cost plus” system.

This would assess value for money while also capturing regional inequalities and environmental and social factors in project appraisal. In the committee’s view, it could help ensure that the projects that best support connectivity, growth and productivity are the ones that get built.

The committee also recommends replacing specific cost and timescale targets, which ICE also highlighted in its evidence as being of limited accuracy given the complexities and uncertainties linked to project delivery.

Instead, the report recommends establishing floors and ceilings within which projects are scheduled for delivery to facilitate transparency and political engagement with the economic and engineering realities of delivering major projects.

A call for a skills strategy

The committee also concurs with ICE’s warning that the government needs to enable companies to plan ahead and invest in developing the required skills to meet these objectives.

The report quotes ICE’s evidence that the absence of a long-term plan for electrification of the rail network meant skills disappeared and restarting that programme became particularly difficult.

To mitigate this, the committee calls for the government to develop a detailed skills strategy to identify skills gaps, alongside a financial commitment to address gaps through apprenticeships and training programmes.

Finally, the committee calls for the government to publish a delivery plan by 25 November 2021, setting out how its transport infrastructure commitments will be implemented to support the NIS.

Why are the committee’s recommendations important?

An affordable, reliable and cohesive transport network is a key enabler of the UK’s economic and social development.

Transportation is also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the UK, so decarbonising the transport system is vital for reaching the 2050 net-zero target.

Ensuring the transport network is fit for the future and offers value to the public requires ongoing efforts to ensure the right frameworks are in place for delivering major transport infrastructure projects.

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