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18 July 2018

801: National Infrastructure Assessment launched

Today’s entry reports on the launch of the National Infrastructure Assessment.

On Tuesday 10 July, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) launched its first ‘National Infrastructure Assessment’, its analysis of what the country needs by way of infrastructure from now until 2050. The assessment can be found here.

Media reaction was somewhat muted, each outlet choosing to focus on one or two issues. The BBC, bizarrely, led on Sir John Armitt saying that the rail franchising system was ‘bust’, something not even mentioned in the assessment. A lot of other bodies have given the assessment a ‘cautious welcome’, which I think is code for them not having read it very thoroughly and waiting to see what everyone else says.

So what does the assessment actually say? It is divided into eight chapters, giving an indication of the NIC’s priorities.

It starts with communications, recommending that nationalwide fibre broadband is delivered by 2033 via a national broadband plan to be produced by the end of this year. A copper switch-off is to take place nby 2025 (not sure what happens between then and the full fibre network eight years later).

On energy, it proposes that 50% of electricity comes from renewable sources by 2030, and that there is only one more nuclear power station contract other than Hinkley Point C by 2025. Given that the Wylfa project has just made an application for a development consent order, that isn’t good news for Sizewell, Moorside etc, although the government would have to endorse this policy for it to be effective, as with all the recommendations.

The assessment proposes ruling out ‘bilateral electricity generation deals, including tidal’, ie each type of energy has to compete with each other on price rather than getting a leg up. Will that discourage newer technologies in favour of more established ones as they can’t get an initial extra investment? Possibly. It doesn’t go as far as saying onshore wind should have the same chance as other technologies but comes close (p40).

The assessment tackles heating, most of which comes from gas. It suggests looking at heating homes by hydrogen and heat pumps rather than gas. Bold.

On waste, it suggests food waste should be routinely collected everywhere by 2025 and processed in anaerobic digesters. That has been suggested for a while but not much has come of it so far. By 2030, 65% of municipal waste (ie collected by local authorities) should be recycled, and 75% of plastic packaging.

Transport focuses on electric vehicles. Private electric car charging points should be available throughout the country to avoid ‘range anxiety’ together with some public ones in more rural areas. 5% of local authority car parking spaces should be given up to charging points by 2020, and 25% by 2025 – that’s a lot! The government should prepare for all new cars to be electric by 2030.

There should be integrated development of housing, transport and employment via strategies for regional (ie non-London) cities, as well as rather than instead of London. Significant funding should be provided for major capacity upgrades in selected growth priority cities (with the identification of those to be carried out by the middle of next year).

The final infrastructure area is water – coping with too much (flooding) and too little (drought). Resilience to flooding should be increased to a 1/200 chance of flooding annually everywhere by 2050, increasing to 1/1000 in densely populated areas. Water network leakages should be halved by 2050, and a national water transfer network should be developed by the 2030s, since wetter areas don’t tend to match areas of high population.

In the next chapter on choosing and designing infrastructure, there is the lone mention of nationally significant infrastructure projects: all NSIPs should have a board level design champion and a design panel. Really?

The final main chapter is on funding and financing, of less interest to infrastructure planning, but the fiscal remit of not spending more than 1.2% of GDP in infrastructure is explained, as is that the NIC have ensured that privately funded projects, not covered by that remit, won’t have too great an impact on bills/fares.

There is also a proposal that independent land valuations should be included early in the compulsory acquisition process, paid for by the acquiring body, to ‘provide greater certainty in compulsory purchase compensation negotiations’. This may affect a project near you if endorsed.

Road pricing is also tentatively mentioned as something that can’t be put off forever, and the NIC will ‘explore new ways to engage stakeholders and the public on this topic’ (p119).

Although rail freight was treated somewhat dismissively in the NIC’s interim assessment, it is not mentioned in the final one, probably because the government has meanwhile asked it to do a specific study of it separately.

The last chapter is on next steps, and in its own words, the NIC will:

  • seek consensus on its recommendations;
  • work with government to establish its recommendations as government policy;
  • monitor the implementation of the recommendations set out in the Assessment alongside those in its earlier studies;
  • carry out further work on some of the areas outlined in this Assessment, including housing, design and economic regulation; and
  • begin work on the second National Infrastructure Assessment, expected around 2023.

Interesting that housing is listed there, which isn’t supposed to be within its remit.

I have a bit of a thing that the NIC is neglecting one of its three objectives, that of improving quality of life, and the assessment doesn’t do much on that issue. It is mentioned on page three, namely that reducing air pollution, protecting homes from floods and making cities better places to live will improve quality of life. While true as far as it goes, it seems a bit of an afterthought. I would rather there had been more of an investigation of the factors that improve (or reduce) quality of life and then seeing what can be done about them, rather than just seeing whether the measures already being proposed might do so.

Generally I think the assessment is bold in places where it could have been timid. It has picked out some main issues (eg electric vehicles on roads and no other types of transport) rather than covering everything, which is understandable. It has occasionally gone against government orthodoxy (eg only one more nuclear power station) but generally just fills in gaps where the government doesn’t have much of a policy. Of course it must strike a balance between getting rejected out of hand by the government if too bold, or not justifying its existence if not bold enough, and I think it has probably struck that balance right for its first assessment.

The government now has a target of six months, with a backstop of a year, to decide if it endorses the recommendations in the assessment, which for the record are 10 January and 10 July 2019 respectively.

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