899: Where next for the National Infrastructure Commission?
Today’s entry reports on the National Infrastructure Commission.
With the announcement of its programme for a second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) it is time to take stock of the National Infrastructure Commission (the NIC).
The NIC was established in 2015 with a remit to support sustainable economic growth across all regions of the UK (which might now be called ‘levelling up’), improve competitiveness and improve quality of life.
It is to do this by issuing an NIA once every Parliament, carrying out specific studies at the request of the government and producing an annual monitoring report.
First, Parliaments have been a little too short recently for the NIC to produce an NIA each time, so it can be forgiven for missing that target. Its so far only NIA came out in July 2018 and can be found here.
According to the government’s commitment to the NIC it was to respond to the NIA within a target of six months and in any event within a year. It actually took 29 months to do so and its response can be found here.
Secondly, by my calculations it has been asked to carry out 11 specific studies and has reported on nine so far.
|Subject – terms of reference date||Report|
|Smart power - October 2015||March 2016|
|London Transport - October 2015||March 2016|
|High Speed North - October 2015||March 2016|
|Connected Future - March 2016||March 2016|
|CaMKOx Arc - March 2016||November 2017|
|New technology - November 2016||December 2017|
|Freight - November 2017||April 2019|
|Regulation - October 2018||October 2019|
|Resilience - October 2018||May 2020|
|Greenhouse gas removal - November 2020||In progress|
|Towns in England - March 2021||In Progress|
And finally it has produced four annual monitoring reports, as follows:
A week ago the NIC announced that its second NIA would be published in the second half of 2023, starting with a baseline assessment to be published this autumn.
Interestingly the second NIA is still looking to 2050, the same end date as the first one, despite being five years closer to that date. One might have thought the end date would move forwards at the same speed.
I’m going to be a bit controversial here but I think the NIC is having to play catch-up with a government that is independently forging ahead with a host of infrastructure-related initiatives to reach net zero in particular. Indeed the declaration of net zero itself came out about a year after the NIA and rendered it out of date in a significant area. Coupled with the government being in no hurry to keep to its NIA response commitment, it seems that the NIC needs to work harder to ensure it doesn’t become irrelevant.
It could also be more accessible, for example, the NIA’s only recommendation on electricity generation was that the ‘government should set out a pipeline of pot 1 Contracts for Difference auctions, to deliver at least 50 per cent renewable generation by 2030’. That is not the most inspiring or understandable target. Compare that with the government’s own one of 40 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030. That’s something we can all get behind.
Of course the NIC needs to tread a fine line between being too timid (in which case it will be overtaken by events, as appears to be happening) and too radical (in which case it will be ignored as being unrealistic). To me it needs to be more radical but also get more engaged with the government so it is more used and trusted – if the government will listen. There is definitely a valuable role for an organisation like the NIC as an authoritative, independent and consistent giver of advice to counterbalance the government’s larger set of priorities and intermittent attention-giving. Rather like nuclear versus wind power.