Engagement, consideration, and a landmark publication – the National Infrastructure Assessment in 2017

Professor Tim Besley

Two reports published in 2013 recommended the establishment of a National Infrastructure Commission. One was the Armitt Review led by our own Deputy Chair, and the other was Investing for Prosperity published by the LSE Growth Commission, which I co-chaired with John van Reenen.

At their core was a simple idea; to safeguard our long-run competitive position in the global economy and to address pressing issues such as climate change, the UK has to get better at planning and delivering major infrastructure projects. After decades of underinvestment due to poor strategic decision making, dither and delay, we felt that it was an idea whose time had come.

Central to that founding vision was the need for long-term thinking and strategic planning. This is embodied in the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) which we are now working on.

The NIA will be produced once a parliament and will be a comprehensive piece of work; nothing of its size and scale has been attempted anywhere in the world before. Looking out over the coming 30 years, the aim is to analyse the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs and set out how they should be met, underpinned with a clear strategic vision based on a range of goals that will determine the living standards and quality of life of UK citizens. It is uniquely placed to look at infrastructure in the round, recognizing core interdependencies.  After all you cannot plan for electric cars if you have no plan to provide the electricity to power them. And this will only be low carbon if that electricity is produced from green sources.

Work on the first edition is well under way. For this first NIA, we are trying to do what will normally take five years in only two, so we are having to focus on the highest priority issues: subsequent NIAs will have more scope to fill in any gaps in that vision. In recent months, commissioners and the NIC secretariat have begun a series of nationwide engagements and organized a series of events which take in the views of policy-makers and practitioners, academics, industry, and members of the public.  The aim of this unprecedented consultation is to listen to a range of perspectives to help the Commission understand the highest priority issues are.  We have been delighted and encouraged with the response and the extent of engagement.

By the end of March, we have published and responded to a consultation on scope and methodology, run a call for evidence, conducted social research across the country, led events in every region and nation of the UK, published a series of papers outlining the drivers behind infrastructure need and development (three – on technology, population and economic growth are available now), and hosted workshops with experts across every sector of the UK’s economic infrastructure.

Later this year, the NIC will publish our NIA Vision and Priorities paper. This landmark publication will set out the key infrastructure challenges facing the UK over the next three decades and outline a broad strategic direction for the country on which this is based. The vision will go to the heart of big questions about drivers of prosperity, place and quality of life. Once published that work will again be subject to further debate – not just through a formal consultation but also through another round of in depth public engagement. This should serve to create a sense of purpose which galvanizes policy-makers across the political spectrum and civil society groups.

All of that work will then feed in to the final document – the UK’s first National Infrastructure Assessment in 2018, with clear recommendations for how the identified infrastructure needs and priorities should be addressed.

The challenge is immense, but the prize is greater still. Infrastructure shapes our daily lives like nothing else and its future should not be taken for granted.  Whether it is access to transport, digital communications or basic household needs, having the best infrastructure delivered efficiently and reliably is central to the lifestyles that we enjoy. Changing the culture of a nation whose expectations have been shaped by elements of haphazard decision making will not be easy.  By raising expectations and providing a clear strategic vision backed up by analysis, we should be a big step closer to making things happen.  And there is encouragement that we are able to deliver when the vision is clear and the structures are in place – the Olympics and Crossrail are examples of this.

Over the coming months, the team and I will be using this blog to update you on our progress towards publishing the NIA and bringing that vision to life. If you want to get in touch with thoughts or advice then please do.

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