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Where is our National Infrastructure Strategy?

6 November 2020: Will the Spending Review on 25 November be accompanied by the long-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy that will set out a framework for public and private investment in the UK for the coming quarter of a century?

The Government has confirmed it will only be presenting a one-year Spending Review to Parliament on 25 November 2020, deferring the Budget and consideration of department spending plans for future years until the economic and fiscal consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are clearer. What will this mean for the National Infrastructure Strategy that was previously expected to be published in March 2020?

This was the subject of a webinar hosted by ICAEW on 22 October 2020, discussing how the National Infrastructure Strategy is critical to achieving the net zero objective, the Government’s vision for a global Britain and to delivering the levelling up agenda.

We heard from Katie Black, director of Policy at the National Infrastructure Commission (the Commission) and from Melanie Onn, deputy chief executive at Renewable UK. Astonishingly, 73% of listeners were unaware of the National Infrastructure Strategy and the same percentage thought that its priorities would have to change as a result of the pandemic. 

We learned that the Commission was set up in 2015 to independently advise the government about good principles for infrastructure investment, in an attempt to address the short-termism that has often affected long-term investment in the UK. We also discovered that the key areas to consider in combatting more than one-third of carbon emissions are heat, hydrogen and electric vehicles. Significant investment is needed now to get to net zero by 2050

Renewable UK is a trade body with 400 members and Melanie Onn stressed the importance not only of physical infrastructure, but of financial infrastructure and soft infrastructure – that is, the skills needed to bring infrastructure plans to life and to make changes to policy.

Regional capability is required to identify, finance and fund and deliver regional infrastructure requirements and would transform the National Infrastructure Strategy from theory into practice, if we can move away from a centralised government, which does not seem very likely at the moment. Evidence shows that local plans for local people delivered locally under the umbrella of a national strategy is the right direction of travel, as we have seen with the local delivery of support as a result of the pandemic.

Also demonstrating that we need to have regional insight is ICAEW member Jo Muncaster, who is currently involved in researching how local transport models can be reinvented to deliver both carbon-neutrality and better cities to live and work in. The “Automated Model Build for Decarbonisation and Climate Resilience” project addresses how historically, transport models used for decision-making have been kept internally within public authorities or private firms, presenting a strategy as a fait accompli, without providing others with the skills or tools to challenge decisions. 

Creating a tool that provides citizens, advisers, professionals and campaigners with the ability to simulate impacts and develop credible, prioritised pathways to net zero in conjunction with local authority planners is the desired outcome. Given the significant level of investment put into transport, Muncaster says, “it is essential that we open up these decisions to scrutiny and provide the wider public with the ability to create and simulate transport models that support a decarbonised future.”

You can read more about the projects with which Muncaster is involved in the next ICAEW Quarterly magazine, to be published in December.

Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “We cannot keep putting off developing a vision for our infrastructure plans. Yes, there will need to be additional responses to the pandemic but without a long-term plan of how we will get back on our feet again we will not be able to deliver sustainable green growth.”

“It is great to hear about the green infrastructure initiatives being undertaken by ICAEW members like Jo Muncaster. Let’s hope that the Treasury announcements in late November include the publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy and the Green Book revisions needed to encourage much greater levels of investment outside of London and the South East.”

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