Long-term, Strategic Approach to UK National Infrastructure Needed

The Institute for Government advocates the strengthening of the National Infrastructure Commission and the formation of a Commission for Public Engagement to create a long-term, strategic approach to UK national infrastructure. This approach should embraces the input of local communities, cut across departmental and geographic boundaries and address housing supply. 

 

This is particularly relevant to addressing the north-south divide and other regional imbalances, as well as the promotion of major infrastructure that needs to serve both Greater London and regional needs, such as future Thames crossings and strategic rail infrastructure such as HS2, Crossrail2 and better airport connections. 

 

In a December 2017 paper, The Institute for Government, a U.K. think-tank, has made a comprehensive and constructive criticism of the absence of a UK national strategy for infrastructure, whilst recommending the strengthening of the National Infrastructure Commission’s remit and institutional form. 

 

A major criticism is poor strategic coordination between different parts of government and UK regions, resulting in inconsistency of decisions and development of projects and policies with poor attention to long-term objectives – an example given being the focus on airport runway concentration in the south-east with limited attention to integration with north-south development balance or strategic rail infrastructure. 

 

The paper maintains that short-termism and “disruptive policy change” as a consequence of the electoral cycle and lack of cross-party consensus on priorities results in inefficiencies and poorly-coordinated projects. The creation of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is meant to mitigate this political uncertainty but to be properly effective, the paper argues that:

  • The NIC should become an executive non-departmental public body
  • Commissioners should represent suitable geographic and professional balance
  • All NIC report conclusions and statement should present clear evidence
  • Public awareness of the NIC’s work needs to be improved
  • The scope of the National Infrastructure Assessment should be broadened to include housing. 

 

The authors recommend that a cross-government National Infrastructure Strategy should be developed in response to the National Infrastructure Assessment, which should:

  • Set out how departmental policies and projects support national objectives (such as regional development, regeneration and housing capacity)
  • Identify how capacity will be developed in “subnational authorities” and how national priorities will be negotiated and stronger local partnerships created
  • “Map out consequences for particular places”
  • Be developed and overseen by a reinstated office of Commercial Secretary to the Treasury and scrutinised by Treasury Select Committee rather than only by Parliamentary select committees “mirroring the silos of government departments”
  • Be open and accessible to public scrutiny

 

Perhaps most importantly, the paper makes a case for a new commission for public engagement to involve local people in infrastructure projects, noting that if local communities feel that a policy decision has been made unfairly and against local opposition, local opinion can become solidly opposed to development. It advocates engagement rather than mere consultation, citing as an example the Commission Nationale du Débat Public in France which has apparently led to a reduction in public opposition to major projects.

 

The recommended remit of such a commission, funded jointly by government and promoters of infrastructure projects, would be to “facilitate public debates” with communities affected by proposals going through the National Policy Statement process or during pre-application consultation of specific Infrastructure projects, as well as to engage “representative panels of citizens” in deliberation of policy options for a National Infrastructure Strategy. 

 

External Sources

Institute for Government: How to Design an Infrastructure Strategy for the UK.

Institute for Government: How to Design an Infrastructure Strategy for the UK-  Executive Summary