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Infrastructure blog

Three years on from the UK's National Infrastructure Assessment - how should we evolve strategic infrastructure planning?

12 July 2021

ICE has released a policy position statement on evolving UK strategic infrastructure planning. ICE Past President, and Lead Fellow for the paper, Paul Sheffield provides an overview of the key points and recommendations.

Three years on from the UK's National Infrastructure Assessment - how should we evolve strategic infrastructure planning?

Major infrastructure interventions come with significant uncertainty – this is something explored before before. Provision of high quality infrastructure is a challenge faced by every government around the world, and there are many uncertainties around the planning and funding of these schemes that have to be weighed up and balanced.

The Enabling Better Infrastructure (EBI) programme encapsulated best practice principles from around the world. We have dipped into this best practice toolkit to underpin our review of the UK’s strategic infrastructure planning system led by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), the results of which we have published today.

Strategic infrastructure planning isn’t a fixed process and needs to evolve constantly, particularly as big data, artificial intelligence and analytics come to the fore to improve our ability to forecast ahead of demand. One example of this is the National Digital Twin programme, which ICE continues to support.

Ultimately, a strategic infrastructure planning process will improve the accuracy of forecasting, which will in turn sharpen the focus on the benefits of infrastructure system interventions and help lower the cost of delivery.

Did the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission, and a new approach, bring benefits to UK strategic infrastructure planning?

Our review found the NIC and strategic infrastructure planning process of the last five years has delivered benefits. The NIC has enabled the role of infrastructure development to be elevated in the national policy debate and has streamlined policy making, providing clarity on why interventions are needed and chaperoning the debate through the various stages.

The NIC has spearheaded pan-industry and sector perspectives on crucial aspects of infrastructure policy. It has provided guidance and advice on reform in the areas of infrastructure resilience, regulation and the use of data and has moved the debate on to look at solutions.

At a company level, the National Infrastructure Assessment (produced three years ago this week) and linked conversations provided foresight and transparency for infrastructure and construction firms to plan investment (particularly staff development) and enabled preparatory discussions across financial institutions and the wider supply chain.

Evolving the approach to bring greater transparency, consistency and certainty

The early benefits above are worth building on to ensure the UK approach to strategic infrastructure planning is geared toward delivering on the significant challenges of our time - ‘levelling-up’, infrastructure decarbonisation and adapting to new models of behaviour post-pandemic.

Our recommendations focus on unlocking sustainable economic benefits by improving the transparency, consistency and certainty of the strategic infrastructure planning system by codifying and evolving practice.

The NIC could play a far more significant role in aligning infrastructure development to social, economic, and environmental needs. When developing its work, the NIC targets the objectives set out in its framework document. Our paper calls for an update to these objectives to include the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the net-zero emissions target. Both of these are targets that Parliament has committed to as long-term ambitions for the country.

Our paper also looks at the role of Parliament and makes the recommendation for select committees to embrace and make greater use of the NIC's advice and expertise. For example, the NIC's independent perspective could be sought by Parliament where central government has commissioned infrastructure studies not conducted by the NIC, such as the Union Connectivity Review.

Given that the government does not have to respond to the NIC's Annual Monitoring Report formally, a select committee inquiry could fill the gap to get a response. This would be similar to how the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) holds one-off evidence sessions following National Audit Office (NAO) reports.

We also look at how the NIC could improve the transparency and consistency of how it arrives at its recommendations. Where the government has yet to respond to a proposal from the Commission, there is value in the NIC providing an update on any changes to the evidence base used for those recommendations or alternatively reaffirming its accuracy. The Annual Monitoring Report would be a good place where this can be captured.

Levelling-up, achieving net-zero and transitioning the infrastructure system to delivering for the public in a post-Covid world will all be easier to achieve with the inclusion of sub-national perspectives as part of national strategic infrastructure planning. Consistency in decision making is improved by having bodies able to offer up evidence on what is needed to improve places through infrastructure interventions. Subnational infrastructure bodies are required to serve as a core pillar of strategic infrastructure planning, ensuring a place-first approach to infrastructure provision at regional and local levels.

ICE is engaging with Parliament, officials and the NIC to look at how these recommendations can be adopted so that the UK's strategic infrastructure planning process delivers even greater benefits in the future.

Later this week, we will look at our other recommendations on aligning strategic infrastructure planning as a policy-making process with the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) planning and decision-making process.