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Technology can help resolve UK's congestion, capacity and carbon issues, says Adonis

Technology can help the UK to address congestion, capacity and carbon issues and ensure the country makes the most of its infrastructure, the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Lord Adonis has said.

In a new consultation paper (218-page / 6.66MB PDF), Adonis said there were seven priorities that needed to be addressed to help the UK lead the world in infrastructure. He said there are currently weaknesses in infrastructure planning in the country. The consultation is the NIC's interim National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA). The NIC is obliged to carry out an NIA every five years. It is due to publish the first NIA, and associated recommendations, in 2018.

This is part of a series exploring the opportunities and challenges of infratech, the integration of technology into infrastructure. You can read more in our special report or request an exclusive Pinsent Masons research report

According to the paper, the UK needs to focus on building a digital society, better linking homes and jobs, delivering new homes, moving to a low-carbon economy where emissions from power, heat and waste are a thing of the past, and revolutionise road transport by "seizing the opportunities of electric and autonomous vehicles".

The UK must also do more to "stand up to drought and flooding" and finance infrastructure in efficient ways across both the public and private sectors.

"None of these challenges will be resolved by perpetuating the status quo," the report said. "Too often, a short-term view, often driven by political considerations, has prevailed or crucial interractions between sectors have been ignored."

Simon Colvin, expert in technology contracts at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "The convergence of physical infrastructure assets and digital technologies is becoming increasingly prevalent, as we highlighted in our recent report on the evolution of infratech. The NIC's NIA will help to identify the opportunities to build on this trend and ensure that digital technologies are front and centre in infrastructure planning."

"For the UK's infrastructure to be efficient and world class, there needs to be a strong digital backbone. The government is already acting in this regard, including through its forthcoming new competition for funding for 5G testing, as well as its support for 'full-fibre' broadband networks across the country," he said.

Infrastructure expert Nick Ogden of Pinsent Masons said: "Digital technology can help the UK build, maintain and upgrade our physical infrastructure, improving efficiencies and inevitably helping to boost the country’s productivity. If the infrastructure developers and technology companies can overcome the cultural differences, stop working in silos and learn to truly integrate, we have the opportunity to once again be a global leader in infrastructure. Government should recognise this opportunity, leading with clear technology regulations and boosting funding for infrastructure."

In its consultation paper, the NIC highlighted the infrastructure challenges that the UK will face as a result of the anticipated growth in population in the country by 2050. Issues of congestion, capacity and carbon emissions will arise as a result, but technology can play a central role in managing these pressures, it said.

The report called for "substantial investment in digital infrastructure", such as new broadband networks and 5G technology, and further highlighted the potential of "smart traffic management systems" and "mobility as a service" to relieve road congestion in the UK.

It further backed "digital mapping" as a tool to help planning the delivery of new housing that the UK needs, and flagged the potential of smart energy technologies for reducing the UK's carbon emissions.

The NIC also said that it is time for the UK "to consider how road infrastructure and use should be replanned or redesigned to maximise the benefits of connectivity and autonomy in the long term". It said the government needs to support growth in the use of electric, connected and autonomous vehicles "with the right infrastructure", such as a network of charging points for electric vehicles. Excess power from electric vehicles could, potentially, be provided back to the Grid "during periods of peak demand", it said.

Sensor technology, smart meters, drones and satellite technology could all be harnessed to help manage the risk to UK infrastructure posed by extreme weather, it said.

The NIC said the government has a central role to play in helping to spur private sector investment in infrastructure. It said the government must help address uncertainties such as in relation to future of support for UK infrastructure from the European Investment Bank in light of Brexit.

"Different financing approaches and models can play a role in bringing more private finance into infrastructure, enabling projects to be built earlier or delivered better over their whole life," the NIC said." The UK was once a leader in public-private partnerships, but implementation has stalled. A lack of consistent evaluation of past projects makes it difficult to draw reliable conclusions on the whole life costs of comparable, publicly funded, projects using private finance compared to those wholly financed within the public sector."

"The Commission will consider where new procurement and financing mechanisms are best suited to help meet the UK’s infrastructure needs," it said.

Colvin said that in the tech space the UK also needs to ensure that it is a market leader.

"Through public sector investment and projects which foster development of new technologies and collaboration between government, industry and research establishments we can ensure we remain on the map internationally, and specifically post exit from the European Union," he said.

Graham Robinson, global infrastructure expert at Pinsent Masons, said there are challenges to overcome in terms of ensuring new infrastructure is funded in a way that is "affordable for the nation".

"Increasing investment within the fiscal remit of 1.0% to 1.2% of GDP will require a sustained and long-term commitment to funding and paying for significantly more infrastructure than has been the case before," Robinson said. "This will require considerable private investment, at a time of greater uncertainty and a weakening economic outlook."

"Innovation in funding, with Land Value Capture, TIF and much greater devolution of spending and revenue raising, will need government to play a significant role in working closely with investors and businesses who it wants to help fund much needed infrastructure, and set out clear policies and an 'open doors' approach to international investors," he said.

"At a time when Britain must improve its productivity, and whilst long-term debt is still cheap, and where productivity could be improved through greater investment in infrastructure, then now is not a bad time for the government to be setting out a bold vision for the future, where infrastructure sits at the heart of our economy, connecting us to international markets," Robinson said.

The deadline for responses to the NIC's interim NIA consultation is 12 January 2018.

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