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Digital infrastructure roll-out: acceleration and reach

23 February 2021: When the National Infrastructure Commission was established in 2015 to advise government on economic infrastructure, digital communications were just part of the mix. Now it is more essential than ever.

Advice to government on energy, transport, water and wastewater, waste, flood risk management and digital communications is the remit of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). It also looks at housing supply in the context of economic infrastructure, but not the need for housing in its own right.

James Heath was appointed NIC Chief Executive Officer last May. With three years’ experience as the Director, Digital Infrastructure, at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, he is well versed in the UK’s digital infrastructure needs and the deployment of broadband. “The acceleration of broadband rollout in the UK has been significant. We are at about 35% penetration of gigabit-capable broadband now. It was about 5% three or four years ago, so there has been a real acceleration in the rollout,” he says. “The question is, will remote working further accelerate that demand? It has certainly made broadband even more essential to consumers and businesses as a utility given the shift in working patterns.”

He continues: “Actually, the UK position is still getting stronger and the government has set a target of at least 85% coverage by 2025. And I think that's achievable, as long as the right policy and regulatory conditions are in place,” says Heath. “That is challenging but achievable.”

Heath runs a secretariat of around 40 staff who report into Commissioners appointed by government who make recommendations to government. So, what is the aim? Heath responds: “If you look at the big challenges facing the country, they are the transition to net zero, levelling up and regional growth, and economic recovery after the pandemic. What's really interesting is the role of infrastructure policy and planning in helping to achieve those three big policy challenges.”

The role of the NIC is to guide the work programme and undertake studies on pressing issues for the Treasury, such as the work just completed on the future of rail in the Midlands and North of England and HS2. Also, over the longer term, the NIC undertakes a National Infrastructure Assessment, which takes place once every Parliament, and identifies challenges for the country. The last one took place in 2018.

The next one will revolve around the three big challenges set out above. “It is our job to identify within those themes the key challenges and opportunities facing the country, and our advice to government on how to solve them over 20-30 years,” says Heath.

Is the focus on new infrastructure or is it also about maintaining and refurbishing existing structures? “It’s both,” he responds. “Our remit is to focus on economic infrastructure, both new and ageing. In the next big National Infrastructure Assessment, we will look at the performance of infrastructure, then identify the 10 big challenges, and come up with solutions to these challenges.”

What about the funding challenges of national infrastructure? “We are given a fiscal remit by the Treasury, which is 1.2% of GDP, to be spent on economic infrastructure,” he says. “As big, if not bigger, is the private side. Over half of all the economic infrastructure in the UK is privately funded. When we think about proposals, one of the things we scrutinise is: what is the right set of policy levers and regulatory models that allow you to incentivise that massive wave of investment – you're going to need to address things like net zero or the rollout of broadband across our country, or how you upgrade the water infrastructure. These are huge investment challenges and most of the money is private.”

To what extent is infrastructure investment key to levelling up? “Those disparities by region are long-standing and they're quite wide so it is a significant challenge. Improving transport infrastructure (either at the local or strategic level), investing in broadband, all these things can contribute to closing the economic disparities, but they aren't sufficient on their own. They've got to go alongside a wider economic strategy around skills, economic development, R&D, and so on,” he says. “The study we did on rail concluded that, yes, if you want to help transform economic opportunities in the North of England, you do need to invest more in rail, but you need to do a lot of other things as well.”

It is the same with energy transition. For example, the shift to wind power does not come as a consequence of infrastructure development alone; it comes because the government has the will – and the associated policies – to make that shift happen. 

“But infrastructure is a key part of the equation,” he says. “If you look at the sectors that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions – transport, heat for our homes and buildings, how we generate our energy – a key part of the solution to all those problems is how we do infrastructure differently, and how we get that huge level of investment into infrastructure to support that transition over the next 10, 20, 30 years.”

So, what does the NIC seek to achieve? “The National Infrastructure Strategy, published in November, was the government’s response to our National Infrastructure Assessment. There is a lot of alignment between government and the NIC on the challenges and how to solve them. We aim to impact directly on public policy,” says Heath.

“Indirectly, we seek to shape and change the policy debate both nationally and locally. It is less tangible but is probably as important. We seek to influence how people approach decision-making on infrastructure.”