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Infrastructure blog

Is the UK delivering the infrastructure people need?

16 May 2024

The National Infrastructure Commission calls for urgent action to ensure the UK’s vital infrastructure is fit for the future.

Is the UK delivering the infrastructure people need?
Issues include the growing road maintenance backlog, which in England would currently take 10 years and £16.3 billion to tackle. Image credit: Shutterstock

The next five years will be critical for achieving the UK’s infrastructure ambitions, according to the government’s independent infrastructure advisor.

Every year, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) reports on the government’s progress towards delivering its National Infrastructure Strategy and implementing the NIC’s recommendations.

This year’s report presents a mixed picture.

On the one hand, there’s been some progress on delegating powers to local and regional governments (devolution), and ongoing advancement towards a net zero energy grid.

On the other, detailed plans for transport and home heating are lacking.

If the government develops such plans and sticks to them, there’s still time to make progress towards key goals such as net zero. But the window is closing.

Devolution progress and planning reforms

The government has acted to ‘extend and deepen’ devolution across England.

New trailblazer devolution deals mean Greater Manchester and the West Midlands will receive single funding settlements covering whole spending review periods of one to three years.

Investment in local transport networks through City Regional Sustainable Transport Settlements has ‘significantly’ boosted funding and flexibility for local governments.

There are also pathways for more regions to agree to further devolution – including more trailblazer deals with combined authorities.

However, the NIC says the government could increase certainty by changing existing funding processes in England, which encourage local governments to compete for additional funds.

Stop-start policymaking is holding back progress on decarbonisation

The government has made progress decarbonising the energy grid, growing the share of electricity generated from renewable sources to a record 47% in 2023.

There have also been welcome moves to speed up the rollout of transmission infrastructure to get electricity where it’s needed.

But a stop-start approach to policy has created uncertainty.

Rolling back on energy efficiency incentives, for instance, has risked slowing down the transition from fossil fuel heating.

Heating buildings still accounts for 24% of UK fossil fuel demand. And the government is already off track to meet its target of 600,000 heat pump installations by 2028.

UK homes are among the worst insulated in Europe, and the NIC has recommended that heat pumps become the main solution for decarbonising home heating.

The ICE has recommended that upfront installation costs are removed to reduce consumer barriers and incentivise heat pump uptake.

Uncertainty is also holding up transport progress

Connectivity, capacity, and reliability are long-term challenges on Britain’s railways – and in many cases are getting worse.

Too many of the government’s plans to improve them still lack clear scopes, costs, or delivery timeframes.

The cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 has ‘exacerbated uncertainty’. Many cities based their growth plans around the full network.

On roads, the deployment of electric vehicle charge points is progressing well.

The NIC also welcomes the zero-emission vehicle mandate, which requires all new cars and vans sold in the UK to be zero emission by 2035.

Until recently, however, the target date was 2030 – and many companies had made manufacturing commitments based on that goal. Late watering down of targets again created uncertainty.

Maintenance woes

The growing backlog and cost of road maintenance issues is worrying. In England it would currently take 10 years and £16.3 billion to tackle.

The rail network enhancements pipeline (RNEP) urgently needs updating. This hasn’t happened since 2019.

Above all, the NIC reiterates its call for a long-term plan for rail as part of an integrated interurban transport strategy.

Reducing costs and maximising the value of infrastructure investment

The UK must get better at controlling major infrastructure project costs. Implementing the NIC’s recommendations depends on it.

Some of the measures it highlights include:

  • setting up governance and delivery arrangements to manage costs.
  • learning lessons from past projects (something the ICE is exploring in relation to HS2).
  • maximising the economic and sustainability benefits of investment.

The last point is also covered in a new report from the Public Accounts Committee.

The committee says government departments spend too little time ensuring projects maximise value and deliver as expected.

In a time of high inflation and fierce global competition, this puts value for money at unnecessary risk.

The NIC is doing further work on the drivers of infrastructure cost – which the ICE is engaging on – and will publish its initial findings later in 2024.

The need to invest in nature-positive solutions and infrastructure resilience

Future infrastructure must be resilient to the worsening effects of climate change.

Flooding rates increased over the last year, with the numbers of properties at risk set to grow further as the frequency and severity of UK rainfall increases.

The government must prepare urgently for this. The NIC recommends maintenance to improve existing flood management infrastructure.

The natural world is also under threat. UK and global trends show that threatened habitats and species are continuing to decline.

When done well, infrastructure can and should contribute to the government’s environmental goals, and nature-based solutions can increase infrastructure resilience.

The ICE's view

Delivering good outcomes for the public from infrastructure investment requires action sooner rather than later.

Capital spending will be frozen in cash terms from 2025/26 – not increased in line with inflation.

The NIC is right to say that this is inconsistent with delivering the recommendations in the second National Infrastructure Assessment.

The 2024 Infrastructure Progress Review presents mixed progress, which isn't enough. This is a critical period for infrastructure delivery to decarbonise, boost regional growth, and ensure future resilience.

The government needs robust plans, a clear strategic direction, and stable policy to ensure the UK’s vital infrastructure is fit for the future.

  • Laura Cunliffe-Hall, interim lead policy manager at ICE
  • Yemi Martins, policy manager at the ICE
  • David McNaught, policy manager at ICE