Out-Law Analysis 4 min. read

How to ensure long-term UK infrastructure delivery

The UK government’s decision in October to cancel phases 2a and 2b of HS2 demonstrated how much the UK’s economic infrastructure projects can be caught up in short-term politics and the British electoral cycle. A change of approach is needed to deliver the infrastructure the UK needs in the long-term.

It is completely right that elected politicians decide on infrastructure priorities, but nobody benefits when decisions taken are subsequently reversed. The HS2 decision specifically was also as much about how the decision to cancel was taken. There have been other examples too of high-profile changes to, and cancellations of, infrastructure projects over the years, such as with onshore wind farms and carbon capture and storage, to name just two.

This doesn’t just matter from a purely domestic point of view. It affects the UK’s productivity, economic performance, and reputation internationally, in terms of its attractiveness and competitiveness for securing inward investment by private capital in UK infrastructure in an increasingly globally competitive investment market.

Robbie Owen

Robbie Owen

Partner, Parliamentary Agent

Real structural change and long-term strategic spatial planning and investment is needed

For decades, the UK was renowned for and enjoyed stable, sound, trustworthy and sensible government and competent stewardship of major infrastructure projects and innovation, but recent events – the handling of Brexit; management of the Covid pandemic; the economic fallout from the Liz Truss premiership – have, I think, impacted how others view the UK in terms of trust, value, relevance, reliability, innovation and leadership.

Decisions taken on infrastructure projects have long-term consequences. HS2 has been in the making since 2009/10 – so in the case of phases 2a and 2b, that is 13 years of work undone at a stroke. This example demonstrates that, in the UK, it is taking a decade at least for major projects to be delivered – a problem in itself – and in this case, the ‘Network North’ proposals that are to be taken forward instead of HS2 phases 2a and 2b represent another return to the drawing board, with the previously published Integrated Rail Plan another casualty of the recent change of direction.   

The challenges ahead for the UK are extremely daunting, much more so than I can ever remember – from the massive decarbonisation challenge, bringing the need to improve resilience to climate change and improve natural capital, to chronic shortages of affordable and resilient housing and a real problem with our depleted environment overall. Technology in energy solutions is fast changing too. In particular, this will require a great grid upgrade – the greatest overhaul of the electricity transmission network in Britain for decades, a big increase in solar and offshore wind, and delivery of some 18 or so major new water resources projects – new reservoirs and water transfer schemes. In addition, the post-HS2 Network North command paper contemplates very significant investment across our transport networks. 

There has been some progress in recent years that can be built upon. The National Infrastructure Commission, established in 2015 by George Osborne, has done some seriously good work, most recently its second five-yearly National Infrastructure Assessment and, in my work world, the April 2023 planning study. There has also been progress by government with planning reform following the national infrastructure strategy of 2020, as seen most recently in the autumn statement documents published last month. However, this is not enough to allow the UK to meet the daunting challenges it now faces.

Real structural change and long-term strategic spatial planning and investment is needed. 

For its part, Labour talks of bulldozing projects through, but even if that were to happen, it would not be a substitute for a strategic, structured, and disciplined approach to planning and delivery of infrastructure for the long term.  

So, what should this structural change look like? I think the change needed is relatively straightforward – here’s my five-point plan:

  • the National Infrastructure Commission should be created as a statutory body, answerable to parliament rather than to ministers. This was always the intention, coming out of Sir John Armitt’s infrastructure review in 2013, but was not carried through when the NIC was created as a non-statutory body in 2015;
  • The UK’s economic regulators – the CMA, Ofgem, Ofwat, etc – should be answerable to parliament rather than to ministers;
  • the NIC should continue to be required to prepare a National Infrastructure Assessment every five years, taking a 30-year view of the UK’s infrastructure needs, but also a longer term 100-year view as well, as other countries do;
  • government should then be obliged by law to respond, within a year of each National Infrastructure Assessment, with a five yearly national infrastructure strategy. The strategy would be approved by parliament via legislation and set out the projects required, as well as related funding arrangements and delivery programmes;
  • the national infrastructure strategy would then be reflected in revised national policy statements, to perform the role of guiding decision-making on planning and consenting for the individual projects within the strategy.

All of this would be ‘concreted in’ by legislation. While it would not be impossible to change, it would be harder to alter speedily in response to shorter term political drivers. The government of the day would, as is entirely right and appropriate, be in the driving seat with each five yearly strategy, but its feet would, and should, then be held to the fire to deliver, unless good reasons arise subsequently which require a change to the strategy approved by parliament.

I do not consider that my proposals for change are radical – and they would be reasonably straightforward to implement. They would impose some much-needed discipline and commitment to deliver. The alternative is that the UK carries on as it is, with no long-term strategic plans anyone can rely on. The UK faces a choice now – does it carry on muddling through or take steps to ensure long-term planning for the nation’s fast-changing infrastructure needs and embed those in environmental and technological investment?

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