James Heath: Reaching out to inform the next Assessment

Our chief executive reviews progress on the second National Infrastructure Assessment.

Published: 9 Jun 2022

By: James Heath

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Commissioners in high vis clothing visiting an infrastructure site

There is a quote from Einstein that is, I think, very relevant to the world of public policy. He reportedly said: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer”. While I might disagree with the smart bit (!), Einstein’s observation about the value of having time and space to grapple with a complex problem and unpack all its different dimensions is really important. 

If you look at successful public policies – that is, the sort of policies that both achieve their immediate goals but also become embedded and even survive changes of government – what you tend to see is that these policies are rarely quick fixes. Most of them tend to have long gestations and learn from previous failures.  

When thinking about how the Commission does infrastructure policy, I definitely don’t see our role as trying to be smarter than government. Rather, I see the value of the Commission coming from our ability to take a different look and a longer look at the hardest infrastructure policy challenges.  

We can bring an independent, long term perspective to bear, take a cross-sectoral approach, and we are willing to say things that it is often harder for government departments to say. 

I’d also hope that our reach as an organisation can build some level of consensus around how to resolve these challenges. The Commission certainly doesn’t have a monopoly of wisdom and so it’s essential that we are open to new ideas, new insights and new evidence.  

That is why we’re taking an open approach to policy-making in our flagship project, the second National Infrastructure Assessment.

As a reminder, the exam question for the second Assessment is: what will the UK’s major, long-term infrastructure needs be over the next ten to 30 years and what are the pathways for meeting them in terms of policy, regulatory and funding?  

Last November, we kicked off the process in earnest with the publication of a Baseline Report, surveying the current state of the infrastructure sectors within our remit and the strategic gaps we will seek to fill.  

The report set out the three strategic themes that will frame the second Assessment work – reaching net zero, protecting the environment and building resilience to climate change, and helping level up communities across the UK – and the specific policy challenges we will seek to address. 

Alongside the baseline report we launched a call for evidence, inviting stakeholders to share their own insights and data to help us formulate policy recommendations to government when we come to publishing the report in the second half of next year. This input will complement the challenge provided by our expert advisory panels 

Around 100 different organisations did so, and their input has proved very valuable. A summary report produced for us by Arup, published today, gives an overview of the feedback we received. It indicates the priorities we identified were sensible ones, with three quarters of those who responded expressing support for the challenges we identified. The knowledge and insights that have been shared will improve our thinking and hone our work. For example:  

  • Many responses flagged concerns around the future of funding and finance for infrastructure, with calls for greater devolution to regional authorities and the need for policy to leverage in more private capital. The Commission works within a fiscal and economic remit within which its policy recommendations must be costed – and government recently lifted this limit on public investment to 1.1% to 1.3% of GDP. While this is welcome, respondents’ submissions remind us that much of infrastructure investment comes from the private sector and needs to be secured through creating the right policy and regulatory environment, ensuring the UK remains an attractive place to invest for the long term. 
  • Responses underlined the importance of the role infrastructure has to play in contributing to biodiversity net gain and supporting the government’s target to halt biodiversity loss by 2030. Having regard to this policy objective is now a formal part of our responsibilities, and we will underline this in the next Assessment by developing new analytical tools to measure the potential impact on natural capital of each of our recommendations. 
  • Stakeholders continue to stress the value of a systems approach and the need for joined up policy, pointing out that the Commission is uniquely placed to help guide and encourage this. Internally we are ensuring our project design breaks down traditional sector silos and the role of lead Commissioners for each of our projects is assisting this process. 

We know not every organisation has the resources to engage in consultation exercises, and we are keen to reach out to the broadest possible range of stakeholders to capture diverse perspectives and create the best possible evidence base for the Assessment. 

As part of this mission, we are about to embark on of a series of regional visits over the coming weeks where the Commission will travel the country to engage with numerous stakeholders and individuals over a number of separate engagements.  

We start off in Manchester on Monday (13 June), where we will co-host a roundtable with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, to discuss with representatives of the combined authority, TfGM and a number of local employers how infrastructure policy can better support the city region’s plans for economic growth. 

We’ll also be meeting representatives of the Greater Manchester Equality Alliance; and visiting sites across Manchester including the Civic Quarter Heat Network and Mayfield Park, a new public space forged from a former industrial area that will also serve to boost the area’s flood resilience through the introduction of green floodable meadows. 

If you’re a business based in the region and want to be part of the conversation, our lunchtime event with the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce provides a chance to hear from Sir John about the areas we are exploring in the second Assessment, and more importantly for us to hear from you about specific policy areas we should focus upon. So if you’re in or around Manchester, do feel free to join us. 

Next stop, on Thursday 30 June, will be the West Midlands. Here we’ll again be meeting with the combined authority, TfWM, and local businesses; we’ll be chatting with students from a local further education college about their aspirations for future infrastructure; and seeing work underway on local transport upgrades.

In July we’ll be visiting West Yorkshire (5 July) and Bristol (22 July), where we’ll be meeting a community group who are building the country’s tallest onshore wind turbine, among a whole host of other engagements. And we’re currently making plans for further visits, including to Teesside later in the year. 

We’re excited to be getting out and talking to people about how infrastructure can better serve their needs – whether to help grow their business, heat their home using less carbon, or reduce their chances of getting flooded in the face of greater weather extremes. 

Because as another paper we are also publishing today sets out, infrastructure plays a significant role in people’s quality of life 

We want the next Assessment to take quality of life seriously, which is why we are exploring how we might measure it: the discussion paper invites responses, and I encourage you to take a look. 

As we prepare for our first regional visit next week – and meet more people from outside the usual policy making circles – the real purpose of work is drawn into sharper focus. As our strapline says, ultimately the work of the Commission is about creating “better infrastructure for all”. 

James Heath is Chief Executive of the National Infrastructure Commission.

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