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27 November 2020

881: National Infrastructure Strategy and response to NIA finally published

Today’s entry reports on the publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy and the government’s response to the National Infrastructure Assessment.

On Wednesday 25 November just after the Chancellor issued the results of his spending review, the first ever National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) was published, which was expected to be a response to the July 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) by the National Infrastructure Commission.

In fact the NIS is not the response to the NIA, which is a separate document ‘Response to the National Infrastructure Assessement’. I go through that in more detail below.

The tagline of the NIS is ‘fairer, faster, greener’, which puts me in mind of the Olympic slogan ‘citius, altius, fortius’ although in this case it would be ‘iustius, citius, viridius’.

There are five main chapters, covering the COVID-19 recovery, levelling up the economy, decarbonisation, private investment and acceleration of infrastructure delivery.

The only nugget I gleaned from chapter 1 is that the NIC’s fiscal remit (i.e. what its recommendations must cost) of 1-1.2% of GDP was to be increased, but given the pandemic it will be reviewed next year.

Chapter 2 says things like ‘create a new infrastructure anatomy’. It is a collection of lists of investments (sample: £12 million to improve walking and cycling in Plymouth), and tweaks (22,000 civil service roles to be relocated from Whitehall by 2030) but doesn’t have the big ideas I was looking for. It does however announce the creation of a £4 billion ‘Levelling Up Fund’. ‘Levelling up the rest of the UK does not mean levelling London down’, although Crossrail 2 is to be halted which will free up investment in public transport in regional cities. The Green Book on appraisal will be reformed to ‘end the dominance of the BCR’ (benefit cost ratio).

Chapter 3 essentially restates last week’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution but in a slightly different order, so it contains big ideas but the Ten Point Plan has stolen their thunder.

Chapter 4 commits to setting up a new UK infrastructure bank in the north of England.

Chapter 5 is about ‘Project Speed’ and is of particular interest to Planning Act 2008 devotees (although saying that the TCPA is the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 doesn’t fill one with confidence). Chapter 5 says ‘The NSIP regime is well-respected but is currently not being implemented as effectively as possible, leading to slower delivery times and more uncertainty’. Interesting characterisation, but it is reassuring to get the endorsement that the regime is well-respected. Page 83 is the one to read, where it announces that ‘the government is establishing a National Infrastructure Planning Reform Programme to refresh how the NSIP regime operates, making it more effective and bringing government departments together to deliver more certainty in the process and better and faster outcomes.’

This will cut timescales for some projects by up to 50% from September 2023 (suggesting an end-date for the review), establish a project ‘acceleration team’ of planning experts, monitor the performance of the NSIP regime, coordinate with departments on the review of National Policy Statements and ensure effective engagement between government, statutory consultees, PINS and developers.

It is very welcome that the Planning Act 2008 regime is to be reviewed, as there is now a wealth of experience of what works and what could be improved. It can be faster, but that should not be at the expense of being fairer and greener. The inclusion of all parties is also welcome, in particular statutory consultees, as everyone needs to buy into the review and playing a full part in the new improved regime.

There are hints about the reform of environmental regulations: a new system of environmental assessment that removes duplication, provides clarity and ensures the embedding of environmental considerations; plus strategic approaches to protection of habitats and species. I don’t see anything specifically announced at the same time by Defra on this, though.

The Energy White Paper is similarly missing and committed to ‘in the next three months’ in the NIS.

So after all that wait, it is going to be more of a slow burn than a big bang. Its main purpose has been put in another document and its big ideas were all announced a week earlier. The review of the NSIP regime is great news, though, and I hope many of the readers of this blog will be able to input into it.

The National Infrastructure Commission has said it will analyse the NIS and publish its analysis in its Annual Monitoring Report next spring.

Response to the NIA

The NIA contained 66 recommendations (numbered 1-64; 23 and 30 were split into a and b). Each recommendation is either ‘fully endorsed’, ‘mostly endorsed’, ‘partially endorsed’ or the level of endorsement is not mentioned, i.e. it is not endorsed.

The final tally is that 25 recommendations are fully endorsed, 20 are mostly endorsed, 13 are partially endorsed and eight are not endorsed. If mostly endorsed gets 2/3 marks and partially endorsed gets 1/3, the score is 42 2/3 out of 66. Read on for notes on the ones that aren’t fully endorsed – for each bullet point the first part is what the NIC recommended and the second part is the gist of the government response.

Communications: five fully endorsed, one mostly endorsed, two partially endorsed:

  • full fibre connectivity by 2033 – ‘some areas are unlikely to be commercially viable for gigabit broadband deployment’;
  • same wayleave regime for comms as for other utilities – ‘Gas, water and electricity do not have a unified wayleave regime, with variation between the rights afforded to each utility.’ The government will consult on whether changes are needed to the telecomms code; and
  • local government digital champions – most have done so, but it is only a recommendation.

Energy and waste: eight fully endorsed, eight mostly endorsed, three partially endorsed, three not endorsed:

  • 50% renewable generation by 2030, later increased to 65% – this is an expectation but ‘not a strict renewables target’;
  • renewables to be moved to Contracts for Difference (CfD) pot 1 – this was consulted upon ‘and the government’s response sets out the pot structure’;
  • indicative CfD auction dates for the next decade should be published by 2020 – they will be roughly every two years but this is not a commitment;
  • take whole systems costs into account in CfD auctions – will do so ‘as far as possible’;
  • support for only one nuclear power station after Hinkley Point C – nope, as predicted, the government wants more than that;
  • hydrogen – neighbourhood trial by 2021, 10,000 home trial by 2023 – will do it by 2023 and 2025 instead;
  • evidence base for heat pumps – evidence is being commissioned in various areas;
  • 21,000 energy efficiency measures in building stock a week by 2020 – nope, should focus on energy reductions, not number of measures;
  • 75% plastic packaging recycling by 2030 – government will set out its target next year;
  • 65% of municipal waste to be recycled by 2030 – nope, doing it by 2035 instead;
  • two-symbol labelling (recyclable or not) by 2022 – will consult on this in 2021; and
  • packaging reduction incentives by 2022 and restrictions on hard-to-recycle by 2025 – more consultation on the former, target of 2025 to eliminate problematic packaging.

Transport: three fully endorsed, one mostly endorsed, one partially endorsed, two not endorsed:

  • charging infrastructure so can be close to 100% electric new sales by 2030 – will do but by 2035;
  • 5% of parking spaces for electric vehicles with charge points by 2020 and 25% by 2025 – nope, we don’t know the best charging provision model yet;
  • subsidies for rural charge points – there are schemes local authorities and home owners can apply for;
  • establish centre for advanced transport technology – nope, a separate unit would isolate the issue;
  • transport and housing: two mostly endorsed, four partially endorsed;
  • 500m per year for road maintenance backlog – £1.125 million for one year’s yer lot (but that gets a ‘mostly’);
  • integrated strategy powers for cities – 37% coverage so far, this will be built on in forthcoming white paper;
  • devolved infrastructure budgets and requirement for five-year budgets – money allocated, no budget requirement; and
  • establish priorty cities for major upgrades – will depend on appropriate governance; money allocated to city regions.

Drought and flooding: three fully endorsed, four mostly endorsed, one partially endorsed, one not endorsed:

  • strategy to address areas with 0.5% risk of flooding per year, 0.1% in densely populated areas – nope, no resilience standards but a ‘vision to build resilience everywhere’ (this reminds me of Syndrome in The Incredibles – if everyone’s super, no-one is);
  • rolling six-year programme for flooding projects – money currently committed, but rolling programme unnecessary;
  • environment Agency to update all coastal plans by 2023 – will not change current six-year cycle;
  • all new developments have an annual flood risk of no more than 0.5% – the current 1% for river and 0.5% for sea water is being reviewed but no new commitment yet;
  • provide at least 1300 Ml/day through a national water network and additional infrastructure by the 2030s – current plans will provide for 1200 Ml/day by 2050; and
  • implement compulsory water metering by the 2030s – metering is only one of a number of measures.

Design: four recommendations – four mostly endorsed:

  • publication of data on infrastructure costs and performance – the NIS requires this at three key stages; and
  • embed design by having a design champion and a design panel – champion expected by the end of 2021, supported by panel where appropriate.

Funding and financing: 10 recommendations – six fully endorsed, two partially endorsed, two not endorsed:

  • adopt funding profile in 2019 spending review – now is not the time to update the fiscal remit;
  • remove requirement for ballot if raising less than 2% from business rates supplement – nope;
  • allow levying zonal precepts via council tax – nope; and
  • introduce independent valuations for compulsory acquisition – seems a good idea, will consult on it.

So the world of NSIPs has not changed overnight. I wonder if the NIS will start to be cited in examinations, recommendations and decisions.

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