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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Planning Act 2008 / 774: NIC focuses on congestion, capacity and carbon

Today’s entry reports on the launch of the National Infrastructure Commission’s ‘vision and priorities’ document.

On Friday 13 October I went to Birmingham to attend the launch of the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC’s) precursor to its National Infrastructure Assessment. I then went on holiday for a week, hence the delay with this post, but it allows for a more considered analysis.

Although previously described as the NIC’s ‘vision and priorities’ document, it was being badged as the draft, or interim, National Infrastructure Assessment on the day and subsequently.

The document can be found here. At 218 pages, it is a considerable undertaking and I can’t profess to have read it all.

The launch

The launch took place at the Curzon Building of Birmingham City University, which overlooks the site of the proposed HS2 Birmingham Curzon Street terminus, so all very fitting.

I won’t make a joke about the body being charged with predicting how much infrastructure capacity is needed in the future not providing a room big enough for everyone who turned up, but it was certainly a popular event.

The event was breezily hosted by Observer journalist Sonia Sodha, chief leader writer. Lord Adonis introduced the draft assessment, and then, having managed to get five metropolitan mayors in the same room (a ‘can-do’ of mayors, apparently), allowed each to speak, followed by a brief question and answer session. The five mayors were Andy Street (West Midlands), Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Tim Bowles (West of England) (a welcome change of name after three Andrews in a row), James Palmer (Cambridgeshire and Peterborough) and Sadiq Khan (London).

The mayors were heralded as representing a cross-section of the country but I note that they all represent areas that voted to remain in the EU. If the NIC is to improve quality of life across the country, it needs to address the concerns of those who feel struggling and powerless and (I think) expressed this by voting to leave. Having said that, the first question asked in the consultation is about the opportunities and risks of Brexit.

I asked, given that these were the NIC’s supposed priorities, what it considered were not priorities, just to confirm it didn’t think everything was a priority. I got a political answer from Andy Burnham (Tory experiments were a waste of time and money) and a courageous answer from Andy Street (cars), but nothing official, although I was told afterwards that it would set too many hares running to declare non-priorities now, but the final assessment would do so.

That’s interesting because one issue has blown up since publication – rail freight. On page 83 of the document (I do wish they’d number paragraphs for easy reference, please can the final one do that), it does appear to say that rail freight is not a priority:

‘The Commission believes that upgrades needed for this sort of shift [a substantial one from road to rail freight] would be prohibitively expensive, whilst the benefits would be questionable’

Even more interestingly, this has been seized on by opponents of two proposed rail freight projects in the East Midlands – see this press report. I expect the NIC won’t like its assessment being described as a ‘Government report’.

So the report is having an effect, but probably not one the NIC intended.

Report contents

The report’s focus is given away by its title: Congestion, Capacity, Carbon – Priorities for National Infrastructure. You might think that the first two are two sides of the same coin, and they are to some extent, but the first focuses on transport, and the second is wider, covering communications, transport, energy and housing. The third is obviously about energy, but it’s not just generation, it is use – cars and domestic heating needing to eliminate carbon emissions.

Seven priorities are identified to tackle these three challenges, a useful way of separating them out in one’s mind:

  • fast, reliable digital services;
  • connected, liveable city regions;
  • new homes;
  • low emission power, heat and waste;
  • electric and autonomous vehicles;
  • resilience to drought and flooding; and
  • getting financing right.

The rest of the document expands upon these and asks a series of questions, to which answers are sought by 12 January 2018.

There are 28 questions for which there is a plea not to take more than 20 sides of A4. The number of questions perhaps reflects the relative importance or at least focus the NIC attaches to each issue, each of which gets a chapter (they are ‘consultation questions’ in the summary and chapter 3, and ‘questions for consultation’ in the other chapters, I’m sure that’s very significant):

  • four questions are asked in the executive summary;
  • four in chapter 1 ‘building a digital society’;
  • three in chapter 2 ‘connected, liveable city-regions’;
  • one in chapter 3 ‘infrastructure to support housing’;
  • seven in chapter 4 ‘eliminating carbon emissions from energy and waste’;
  • three in chapter 5 ‘a revolution in road transport’;
  • four in chapter 6 ‘reducing the risks of drought and flooding’; and
  • two in chapter 7 ‘financing and funding infrastructure in different ways’.

Before the question(s) in each chapter, the NIC sets out its vision in that area, which I summarise as:

  • seamless, ubiquitous, reliable and resilient broadband;
  • attractive cities in every region, sufficient transport infrastructure to allow car free areas, high capacity commuter rail and autonomous cars, cities as cultural, leisure and social centres, with fast connections between them;
  • infrastructure that enables housing;
  • abundant low-cost, low carbon energy and far less waste;
  • an autonomous, low carbon (road) vehicle fleet, with a responsive road pricing system;
  • greater resilience to flood and drought, less leakage and waste; and
  • access to private sector investment, efficient private finance, and private and public sectors working in partnership.

I thought the last chapter might talk about land value capture (ie where a share of the increase in land value caused by an infrastructure project can be used to help fund the project), but it doesn’t, although it is briefly covered in the second chapter.

A blog from me about the National Infrastructure Commission would not be complete without a plea for more public engagement. The launch was well attended by important people, which is good, but unfortunately the coverage of it was limited. It was covered by the BBC and other outlets, but most just parroted the current infrastructure problems listed in the NIC’s own press release (slow broadband, slowing roads, rail overcrowding and power stations needing to be replaced).

As mentioned above, this is a golden opportunity for wide engagement in shaping the future of the country. I’m sure the NIC is willing to do this and I accept it’s difficult to get this somewhat dry topic across, but it is possible. I have previously suggested presenting proposals as either/or to be more interesting, but (a) what do I know, that might not work and (b) I’m sure there are other ways to bring the subject alive.

Indeed yesterday, the Industrial Strategy Commission (chaired by Dame Kate Barker who is also on the NIC), has issued a ‘final report‘ that calls for (in the style of universal basic income) Universal Basic Infrastructure for people in all parts of the country. From my alternatives, they’re going for the ‘bring everywhere up to a standard level’ option rather than ‘maintain areas’ distinctiveness’.

I supposed I should be careful what I wish for: depressingly predictably, the ‘below the line’ comments to the article about the launch in the Times give the main reason for our failing infrastructure as too much immigration.

So that is the interim National Infrastructure Assessment in a (rather large) nutshell. I hope discussion of it will continue and deepen as time goes on.

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