NIC says government ‘not delivering fast enough’ on infrastructure

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has criticised the government for “not delivering fast enough” on its infrastructure goals and is calling for ministers to commit to bigger and bolder investments.

In its annual Infrastructure Progress Review published today (27 March), the NIC says there has been positive progress in areas such as gigabit broadband and renewable energy generation.

But in a number of other respects, the government is not on course to meet its targets and ambitions. The report highlights problems including uncertainty over the timeline for HS2, insufficient energy efficiency installations and a lack of comprehensive policy for decarbonising heating.

The review says that a more consistent and committed approach to policy and delivery is needed to tackle long-term challenges such as reaching net-zero and improving economic growth.

The report calls on government to develop the “staying power” needed to meet long-term goals instead of  “chopping and changing” of policy in areas such as energy efficiency and the future of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford growth arc.

Central government should make “fewer, but bigger and better” interventions towards reaching net-zero, the report adds. Arguing that a slew of small-scale measures and consultations are leaving important strategic policies unresolved, it says “government must now focus on the small number of areas where it can have a big impact and make bold decisions”.

The report also recommends more local devolution of funding and decision making, and removing barriers to delivery on the ground such as those in the planning system. It points out that the timespan for granting Development Consent Orders for nationally significant infrastructure projects increased by 65 per cent between 2012 and 2021.

The report’s most positive assessment is on digital infrastructure. The government will likely achieve its target of nationwide gigabit-capable broadband by 2030, the NIC says, if it maintains its £5bn subsidy programme for underserved areas and operators deliver on their published plans.

But progress on major transport projects was found to be “mixed”. The report notes that the Integrated Rail Plan provides more long-term clarity for the North of England and the Midlands, with a commitment to invest £96bn. But it warns that recent delays to HS2 will postpone the benefits to these regions’ economies, saying “government must act to create a greater sense of certainty around the whole project”.

On energy, the report says that, while there has been good progress on delivering a highly renewable electricity system, there has been little momentum on energy efficiency or heat. It says targets to decarbonise heating are “not backed up by policies of sufficient scale” and calls for a “concrete plan” for delivering energy efficiency improvements.

The report also says that rapid progress is needed on increasing water supply, where it is expected that consent for at least 12 nationally significant infrastructure projects will be needed by 2030.

The NIC report also recommends 10 government actions for the year ahead. These include moving away from competitive bidding processes for local funding, increasing the pace of energy efficiency improvements in homes before 2025, and removing barriers in the planning system by publishing National Policy Statements on energy.

In the report’s foreword, NIC chair Sir John Armitt says: “If the commission saw 2021 as a year of slow progress in many areas, in 2022 movement has stuttered further just as the need for acceleration has heightened.

“To get back on track, we need a change of gear in infrastructure policy. This means fewer low-stakes incremental changes and instead placing some bigger strategic bets, backed by public funding where necessary.”

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