Window closing on UK infrastructure catch up, warn government advisers

Urgent action needs to be taken to improve train services in the north of England according to the UK National Infrastructure Commission.

The UK is lagging behind on its delivery of key infrastructure, threatening economic growth and climate targets.

Failure to go further, faster over the next five years on plans for infrastructure delivery could constrain economic growth and threaten climate targets, according to the UK government’s official infrastructure advisers.

Noting that the UK has faced several years of disruption from Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, the National Infrastructure Commission’s annual review charts a mixed picture of progress towards key infrastructure goals, as follows.

  • Five-year funding settlements for local transport have been devolved to more city regions.
  • Funding diverted from the cancelled northern leg of the major rail project HS2 has been earmarked for local transport budgets, but without a detailed replacement plan for improving train services in the north and Midlands the decision risks future capacity challenges.
  • The share of electricity generated from renewable sources has grown to a record 47% in 2023 and there have been welcome moves to accelerate the roll out of transmission infrastructure to get electricity where it is needed, but changes to the planning system for onshore wind developments are not sufficient for this source to meet its potential.
  • Last-minute changes to policy have created uncertainty and reduced the incentives to install a heat pump, which risks slowing the transition from fossil fuel heating. Government is currently off track to meet its target of 600,000 heat pump installations by 2028.
  • Demand for water has plateaued rather than fallen, compounding risks to future supply, while network leaks are not being fixed at the rates required to meet the industry’s own targets, with weather conditions leading to a rise in leakage levels for most companies during 2022/23.
  • Updated National Policy Statements for energy, national networks and water resources should ensure faster decision making on major projects, but opportunities remain to go further by expanding community benefits for hosting infrastructure and reducing duplicative environmental assessments.

The commission’s Infrastructure Progress Review 2024 calls for a concerted catch up programme accelerating policy implementation and delivery to ensure that the UK’s infrastructure is fit for the future.

In its recent National Infrastructure Assessment, the commission calculated that public investment in infrastructure will need to reach around £30bn a year over the coming decades (from around £20bn a year in the past decade), alongside an uplift in private investment to around £50bn a year.

Writing in the report’s foreword, commission chair Sir John Armitt said that the next five years was a “a critical period for making decisions on things that are of immediate concern to the public – the three Ps of prices, potholes and pollution,” he said.

Addressing these areas, the report calls for:

  • Coherent policy backed by long term public funding to boost the transition to low carbon home heating that should help to reduce household bills over the longer-term.
  • Continued progress on devolution, expanding its reach to give all local authorities with responsibility for local transport five-year funding settlements to enable more stable planning for road maintenance and other priorities.
  • Transformational change in the water sector, that will require some bill increases, to address interconnected sewage and drainage problems.

The report also includes new analysis on the railway network in the north and Midlands in light of the decision last autumn to cancel work on High Speed 2 north of Birmingham.

Offering an initial assessment of how current plans will impact connectivity and capacity, the commission notes “government’s plans might address a number of issues, but greater specificity is needed regarding the scope, cost, benefits and schedule for the schemes individually and as a package”.

The commission believes “existing infrastructure is a constraint on future passenger and freight growth. Capacity and connectivity cannot be materially improved north of Birmingham without further infrastructure investment.”

To enable passenger growth in the future, the report says, “a ‘do nothing’ scenario north of the proposed [Handsacre junction] is not sustainable”, while also nothing that major improvements to both inter-urban transport and local transport networks are affordable within indicative spending limits set for the commission by government.

Sir John Armitt concluded: “A window remains to ensure that practical delivery plans are in place, backed up by the necessary public and private funding, to help achieve economic and environmental goals that will improve life for British households. But the window is closing, at least if we don’t want to delay those benefits and compound the disruption of recent years.”

Responding to the Infrastructure Progress Review 2024, Richard Robinson, AtkinsRéalis president for UK and Ireland, said:  “The National Infrastructure Commission rightly points out the need to accelerate progress in infrastructure planning to deliver on regional growth, boost resilience and achieve environmental goals.

“The pace of delivery is the single biggest priority to ensure the UK’s infrastructure is fit for the future. That means national and sub-national strategies and frameworks that will cement a future pipeline of projects and bring forward investment, but also a commitment to streamline planning which would unlock £11bn of productivity gains. Since 2012, consenting times have increased by 65% and addressing the planning system would also help to turn strategies and spatial plans into shovels in the ground, skills development and strengthening of supply chains.

“Our industry is ready to deliver the clean, resilient infrastructure that connects, powers and enables greater opportunities for communities and creates economic growth across all regions. We need to move at pace to unlock it.”

Click here to download the UK National Infrastructure Commission Infrastructure Progress Review 2024.