My first 100 days

Published: 14 Aug 2020

By: James Heath

100 days ago, I took up my post as Chief Executive of the NIC. Like others who have changed jobs during the crisis, I’ve been navigating the challenge of being away from a tangible office environment and getting to know my new team through calls and computer screens. While it’s been a rather unconventional start, I join at a time when the Commission’s work has never been more important.

As Britain grapples with the huge social and economic costs of Covid-19, infrastructure has to be central to the efforts to get the country back on track.

Today’s milestone feels like a natural moment to turn to the future and share some thoughts on the Commission’s priorities for the next six months.

I’m struck by the opportunity we have to make a big difference to how the UK does infrastructure strategy and there are three things in particular which are at the forefront of my mind.

The first is our Rail Needs Assessment. The government has asked the Commission to examine how HS2 Phase 2b can most effectively be integrated with the range of other proposed rail schemes across the North and the Midlands.

This work will be a key part of the government’s forthcoming Integrated Rail Plan and it’s arguably one of the most challenging and high profile studies the Commission has been tasked with. Aside from being analytically complex, there is a great degree of stakeholder interest. As ever, we will be looked to for strategic thinking, but the RNA is also moving us closer towards project appraisal.

The Commission will add value by providing rigorous evidence and analysis to underpin long term decision making, and frame the strategic choices available to government.

Last month, we published our interim report. This included the methodology the Commission will use for assessing the various schemes, and developing packages that are deliverable, affordable, and maximise benefits to communities. The final report will be published in November, offering ministers various solutions for knitting different projects together to optimise connectivity and capacity, rather than just a single right answer.

Second is the Commission’s role in advising government on the economic recovery and the areas of infrastructure that should be its focus, building upon the ideas in the first National Infrastructure Assessment, as well as some new analysis. Infrastructure projects can help deliver short term economic stimulus, but critically infrastructure policy must build longer term confidence too, so private sector firms invest and create new jobs. The government’s National Infrastructure Strategy presents a major opportunity to set out a vision for infrastructure with long term plans and funding.

The pandemic presents an interesting set of questions about behaviour change and how our infrastructure will feel the consequences of different patterns of activity going forwards. Covid-19 has altered how we engage with the world in the immediate term, notably with increased demand for digital communications and a decline in public transport use. The Commission will explore plausible future scenarios to consider how people might interact with economic infrastructure in the future and what the policy implications might be, to inform the next National Infrastructure Assessment.

This leads me to my third priority – the second National Infrastructure Assessment.

The Commission is responsible for carrying out such an Assessment once a Parliament, with this next iteration expected to conclude in 2023, following the first which was published in July 2018. To set the stage, we plan to begin with a baseline review of the state of the country’s infrastructure early next year and then identify the long term questions and challenges that warrant further investigation. The themes of decarbonisation, productivity and regional growth will be important in the second Assessment, but our approach will be framed by an uncertain economic environment.

The Commission has a significant role to play in solving some of our era’s defining problems. Whether it’s galvanising the economic recovery, realising net zero or changing Britain’s economic geography, our remit really matters. In the coming months, I look forward to working with colleagues across our sectors to ensure the NIC delivers a real world impact. Faced with huge challenges, now is the time for us to set the agenda for infrastructure policy and build a transformational legacy.

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