The National Infrastructure Strategy, a 100-page document, is set around three central objectives: economic recovery; “levelling up” and strengthening the Union; and meeting the UK’s net zero emissions target by 2050.
It recognises that the quality of our national infrastructure has fallen behind that of other countries and makes it abundantly clear that it views investment in infrastructure as central to the economic recovery post-COVID-19.
The first striking aspect of the strategy is its clear desire to “level up” the Union. It seems to recognise that recent infrastructure investments have been too focussed on London and the South East and looks to address this balance in a number of ways. It emphasises that this is about “levelling up” the rest of the Union as opposed to “levelling down” London, which is supported by the continued funding for Crossrail, but with the decision to stop progress with Crossrail 2. There are eight city regions that will benefit from £4.2bn in five-year settlements to start in 2022/23 being Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, Tyne and Wear, West of England and the Tees Valley.
There are some railway specific aspects that are particularly interesting. The strategy seems to acknowledge the need to promote further investment to maximise the economic benefits possible from HS2. The report states that the Bill for the HS2 Phase 2a from the West Midlands to Crewe is expected to receive Royal Assent later this year, which is to be supported further by an investment of £17.5bn to renew and upgrade the rail system over the remainder of Network Rail’s five-year settlement. Furthermore, a New Ideas Fund will be established to fund feasibility work on new lines and stations across the country whilst £500m will be invested to restore services lost in the Beeching Cuts in the 1960s, acknowledging this was a mistake.
The Government has stepped in to keep train services running in spite of severely reduced passenger demand. While these temporary arrangements are in place, the Government says that it will make an early start on key reforms and ensure a new and better type of rail network emerges following the pandemic. It will be interesting to see how they harness the trade-off between competition driving efficiency and reliability, and the natural monopoly of rail provision, previously addressed by the franchising system.
As part of the drive for decarbonisation, an investment of £1.3bn will go towards charging infrastructure to accelerate the mass adoption of electric vehicles ahead of ending the sale of new petrol cars by 2030. This is really quite pressing now, mindful that the average car in the UK is replaced every four years, this deadline and the need for wide distribution of EV charge points will be with us very quickly.
A significant element of the strategy is the creation of the National Infrastructure Bank, to be located in the North of England. It is planned to be operational in interim form this year until the 2021 Budget. The Bank will co-invest with private partners, notably pension funds and insurers (expected to invest £150bn-£190bn in 10 years). It will be interesting to see whether private investors respond as anticipated to this proposal as well as the rates they can borrow and lend at, as it will effectively be replacing the AAA-rated European Investment Bank.
There is much emphasis on getting 'shovel ready' projects off the ground. HM Treasury is strongly encouraging all Government departments and their agencies to progress approved and funded projects into procurement and contract without delay. With recognition that most critical new projects take over a decade to move from conception to reality, the intriguingly named Project Speed review has identified interventions to shorted the length of projects, from planning, procurement and decision making to construction approaches. This will be relevant to Homes England’s recent Housing Infrastructure Fund awards, where ambitious deadlines for delivery need to be met.
There is also a nod to tech and how this might support delivery through better use of data and developing a "national digital twin" of the UK's infrastructure systems and built environment - smart infrastructure that collects data about itself to inform real world decisions. This is likely to have applications that we have not even thought of yet, similar to Transport for London opening up London’s transport data 10 years ago leading to a myriad of uses.
Overall, huge commitments such as decarbonisation and levelling up, equal a huge challenge. Key things to look out for will include the new Construction Playbook and the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline, due to be published within the next six months.