Back in November 2020, the government announced the publication of its first National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS), detailing its plans for infrastructure investment that would, it said, result in a ‘renaissance’ of the UK. With the tagline of ‘fairer, faster, greener’, the NIS reveals the UK government’s plans for the post-pandemic world – backed up by hundreds of millions of pounds of public and private investment.
Short-term and long-term aims
The NIS was published in response to, and broadly aligns with, the recommendations set out in 2018 by the National Infrastructure Commission. The long-awaited document highlights the key role of infrastructure in supporting the UK’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the need to address some of the failings that have long hindered UK infrastructure.
The key to post-pandemic recovery
Infrastructure, the NIS argues, will have a key role to play in the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic – boosting job creation and retention in the short term and creating the conditions for long-term sustainable growth. The report explains how the £100bn of funding set out in 2020’s Spending Review will boost the economy and deliver the digital and physical infrastructure required to support new patterns of behaviour, such as remote work and cycling, that have developed in response to the pandemic. In addition to significant public investment, the introduction of a new National Infrastructure Bank is also hoped to mobilise billions of pounds of private investment.
The NIS also aims to tackle the highly uneven levels of investment that have long characterised infrastructure funding. It focuses on ‘rebalancing the UK’, with billions of pounds investment to be spent on:
- Improving rural broadband access through the nationwide rollout of gigabit-capable broadband
- Protecting coastal communities from flooding and coastal erosion
- Improving intra-city transport in the UK’s largest city regions outside of London
- Bringing jobs and investment to deprived communities
- Revitalising over 100 town centres and high streets
- Improving road and rail connections between regions and nations.
Decarbonising the economy
In line with the government’s ambitious climate change objectives, the NIS also pledges billions of pounds of investment in reducing carbon emissions. This includes:
- Investment in renewable and nuclear energy solutions, including offshore wind
- £1bn investment to support the establishment of carbon capture and storage
- Funding to plant 30,000 hectares of trees every year in line with Climate Change Committee recommendations
- Promoting private investment and establishing a regulatory environment that promotes energy efficiency
- Accelerating heat decarbonisation through the wider rollout of existing and developing technologies
- £1.3bn investment in charging infrastructure to accelerate the mass adoption of electric vehicles.
How has the NIS been received?
The NIS has been met with mixed reactions from industry and climate groups. Sir John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, welcomed the report, saying: “We are pleased to see the government’s strategy responds closely to our own independent assessment of the country’s infrastructure needs and how to address them.” Meanwhile, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) has called the Strategy ‘an important moment for the infrastructure sector’, although it did ask for more clarity on exactly how the government intends to deliver on the country’s net-zero commitments.
The reaction from climate groups has been more lukewarm. While the UK Green Building Council said it ‘welcome[s] all references to net zero in the National Infrastructure Strategy”, it professed its disappointment that “energy efficiency is not included as a national infrastructure priority’. Friends of the Earth was the NIS’s biggest critic, saying it ‘falls woefully short of what’s needed to meet the UK’s legally binding targets for building a green future.’
Changing priorities for a changing future
While most responses indicate that the NIS is lacking in its response to climate change, it is clear that priorities are shifting as we move into the post-pandemic world, with hundreds of billions expected to be spent on revolutionising the UK’s infrastructure and economy in the years to come. Here at Focus, we are now awaiting the government’s Net Zero Review (due to be published this year) and hope it will fill in some of these gaps in the roadmap towards the future of UK infrastructure.