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26 October 2016updated 08 Sep 2021 7:17am

Sir John Armitt: laying the foundations for tomorrow’s Britain

A project of unprecedented size and scope, the National Infrastructure Assessment will lay the foundation of this country’s future

By John Armitt

Our national infrastructure is enjoying a spell in the limelight. Long overdue decisions have been taken and senior ministers have signalled their commitment to invest.

In Crossrail we are home to the largest development in Europe; we lead the world in offshore wind and HS2 is progressing from conception to construction as fast as anything in the Western world. But we have been here before, and the overall picture remains mixed.

The UK’s infrastructure ranks 24th in the world, and decisions can still take decades. This matters to each and every one of our daily lives. From travelling to work, to keeping in touch with friends and family and powering and protecting our homes, our national infrastructure represents the networks and systems that keep our country and communities on track.

When it fails the results range from minor frustration to a catastrophic breakdown of the order on which we rely. So we must seize this moment to secure a permanent shift in the way we plan and deliver major projects in this country. There is nothing to prevent the UK from delivering world-class infrastructure if we set about the task with the seriousness and determination it requires.

This is precisely what the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) intends to do. In January 2017, the Commission – of which I am Deputy Chair – will be placed on a permanent footing as an executive agency, operationally independent of government with complete discretion to determine how we work and what we recommend.

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Already the Commission has published detailed analysis and clear advice across three landmark studies. Our recommendations – to bring forth a Smart Power revolution through interconnection, storage and flexible demand across our electricity network, move forward with Crossrail 2 in London and to create a HS3 network connecting the great cities of the North – secured more than £400m of investment at Budget 2016, but government has more to do to make these proposals a reality.

The NIC takes its responsibility to ‘hold Ministers’ feet to the fire’ seriously. If government is to open the way for a better, more efficient electricity network able to take advantage of the innovations we describe then BEIS must move forward with gusto, starting with the publication of its long-promised, and overdue, consultation.

In the North of England, all eyes are on Transport for the North and the next phase of their plan to make a High Speed North a reality. The Department for Transport and the Treasury must continue to offer their support.

And in London the government’s commitment to submit a Crossrail 2 hybrid Bill by Autumn 2019 will be sorely tested if TL are not allowed and encouraged to move forward with the necessary preparation.

The National Infrastructure Commission will monitor developments closely. Where government gets it right the Commission will say so, but be in no doubt that we will make our voice heard if progress is not made.

Individual projects like these, however, represent only a small part of what we do. Alongside new studies, considering the infrastructure needed to make a success of 5G and an assessment of the strategic requirements of the growth corridor stretching across Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford, the National Infrastructure Commission is undertaking a piece of work unmatched for size and scope anywhere in the world – the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA).

At its heart, the NIA asks a simple question – what infrastructure will the UK need over the next 30 years to remain competitive, foster growth and ensure high quality of life?

Our task, is to inject the rigorous analysis and strategic thinking we need to plan and deliver the infrastructure of the future.

How can infrastructure best support growth, how should we decide what we repair and what we rebuild, what is affordable, who should pay for it and how? These are the sorts of big questions we need to answer if we are to replace sporadic decision making with a long-term strategy.

For example, we can all see that the inter-relationships between sectors like energy and transport are not always as clear as the walls which separate Whitehall departments.

A move to electric vehicles would have enormous implications for our power supply; cooling our power supply may mean dramatic new demands on our water supply.

Yet all too often our strategic planning remains uncoordinated across, and even within, government departments.

Our economic infrastructure is not a series of discrete networks, but a system of interlocking systems. For the first time, the NIA will seek to assess and plan for our future need by studying and addressing those connections.

Underpinning that work will be an assessment of the four key drivers of the supply and demand of infrastructure – broadly fluctuations in population, the economy, the pace of technological advance, and the impact of climate change – and the scenarios over the medium term that they suggest.

To give one example, we need to understand how new technology will allow us to manage capacity in transport and energy and what that will mean for our networks.

This is complex, technical work, with dramatic real world consequences. With a deeper understanding of the trends which will shape our future, policy makers will be better equipped to ensure that improvements arrive in plenty of time to head off the crises we are all so desperate to avoid.

So developing the NIA will be an enormous undertaking, but the prize is greater still. A successful NIA will stand as the cornerstone of a serious and strategic long-term approach to our infrastructure that will help reduce unnecessary delay, costs and congestion, making our lives easier and our economy stronger.

World-class infrastructure can form the basis on which the UK succeeds for decades to come. Today, we have the chance to turn that hope into a reality. In the aftermath of the Brexit decision, it is crucial that we sezie it.

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