The UK government’s decisions on economic infrastructure are inconsistent and subject to constant change. New projects are dreamt up, reframed, scrapped and reinvented, seemingly with little consideration of long-term objectives. This results in uncertainty, delays and increased costs for taxpayers and consumers.
This is not just the fault of individual organisations or people. There are also systemic problems with government institutions and the politics of infrastructure decision making in the UK. This report identifies three particularly challenging issues and sets out recommendations for how to resolve them.
Problem: Without a credible evidence base and long-term approach, infrastructure decision making is subject to continuous and disruptive policy change.
National-level infrastructure policy in the UK changes regularly. This is, to an extent, an inevitable consequence of politics. New governments quite rightly have their own priorities and often therefore discard or amend the policies and projects of their predecessors. Our adversarial political system and the electoral cycle can make it challenging to develop cross-party consensus on the country’s infrastructure needs and lead governments to focus on short-term objectives.
Yet, to be successful, infrastructure decision making must be evidence-based and focused on the long-term future. Infrastructure projects, particularly large ones, can take years to build and often have lifetimes of several decades or more. Constant policy change disrupts this process, resulting in delays, additional expense and poorly co-ordinated projects.
The formation in 2015 of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to independently assess the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, and make recommendations to government, represents an important opportunity to mitigate some of these problems. However, a number of reforms are needed to make the most of this.
- The NIC should become an executive non-departmental public body so that its institutional form better matches its independent function.
- The Government should, when picking NIC commissioners, ensure suitable professional and geographical balance.
- The NIC should provide clear evidence for its report conclusions and public statements.
- The NIC must improve the general public’s awareness of its work.
- To ensure that the NIC’s National Infrastructure Assessment provides strong foundations for joined-up decision making across different types of infrastructure, its scope should be broadened to include housing.
Problem: Co-ordination between government departments and levels of government is poor, with no overarching strategy to guide decision making.
Infrastructure decision making in Whitehall is often characterised by ‘departmentalism’ (a lack of co-ordinated working across departments) and short-termism. This is unsurprising, given that responsibility for different but overlapping parts of infrastructure policy is currently spread across seven different departments.
- The Government should develop a cross-government National Infrastructure Strategy in response to the National Infrastructure Assessment. This should:
- articulate a vision for how departmental policies and projects will help meet national objectives
- identify how the capacity of subnational authorities – such as combined authorities, local authorities and subnational transport bodies – will be built, the mechanisms by which national priorities will be negotiated with them and how stronger local partnerships can be fostered
- identify opportunities for the NIC to carry out further work
- map out consequences for particular places
- be accessible to the public.
- National Policy Statements should flow from the Strategy, and act as a decisionmaking framework for the delivery of projects which support its objectives.
- The Government should reinstate the position of Commercial Secretary to the Treasury. Their portfolio should be focused on supporting the Chancellor to develop and oversee implementation of the cross-government National Infrastructure Strategy.
- The Treasury Committee should lead scrutiny of the NIC, the National Infrastructure Strategy, and the Government’s relationship with both, but Parliament should not mirror the silos of government departments. Other parliamentary committees will have a crucial role in scrutinising government infrastructure policy, and should collaborate closely with the Treasury Committee.
Problem: The UK lacks forums for productive and structured public debates on infrastructure policy options
The UK is poor at engaging the public and local communities on major infrastructure projects. This has serious consequences: when local communities feel disempowered or that a decision has been made in an unfair way, they often oppose development entirely. This local opposition can result in unnecessary delays and additional cost. Equally, by neglecting engagement, decision makers lose the benefit of rich data with which to design efficient assets; supporters of projects don’t have an opportunity to voice their opinions; and communities may not be made aware of the wider, national benefits of projects.
- The Government should establish a Commission for Public Engagement (CPE) in infrastructure decision making, modelled on the French Commission Nationale du Débat Public.
- The CPE should:
- facilitate in-depth deliberations with representative panels of citizens to evaluate policy options for inclusion in the National Infrastructure Strategy
- facilitate public debates with communities that will be affected by projects as proposals go through the National Policy Statement process or the ‘pre-application consultation’ stage of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project planning regime
- provide advice to project sponsors undertaking consultations during the ‘pre-application consultation’ stage of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project planning regime.
- The CPE should be established as an executive non-departmental public body and be funded jointly by government and scheme promoters.