On 2 December 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Berkeley (Labour) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to address the concerns in the report by the National Infrastructure Commission, The Second National Infrastructure Assessment: Baseline Report, published in November.

What is the National Infrastructure Assessment?

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was launched in October 2015. It provides independent advice and analysis to government on the infrastructure requirements and future strategy for infrastructure decisions in the UK.

On 15 November 2021, the NIC published the baseline report from its second National Infrastructure Assessment. The NIC produces a National Infrastructure Assessment every five years, providing an evaluation of the UK’s infrastructure needs to 2050 and beyond. Each Assessment analyses the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs, outlining a strategic vision over the next thirty years and setting out recommendations for how identified needs should be met.

The Second National Infrastructure Assessment is due to be published in 2023, with the baseline report representing the first significant milestone in that process. It has been released alongside annexes focusing on key areas including digital; energy; flood resilience; waste and wastewater; waste; and transport. The NIC has also published social research on the public’s priorities for future infrastructure and attitudes towards possible solutions to address urban congestion.

The NIC intends that the baseline report and these annexes will establish the main priorities to be explored in the next Assessment, which will be focused on three key strategic outcomes:

  • reaching net zero
  • reducing environmental impacts and adapting to a changing climate
  • supporting levelling up

The NIC has launched a call for evidence on the study topics, to inform its scoping and research phase. The closing date for submissions is 4 February 2022.

Key findings from the baseline report

Since the publication of the NIC’s first National Infrastructure Assessment in 2018, the 2021 baseline report noted that there has been “significant progress” on some of the key areas identified in that report. They included, for example, on access to gigabit broadband and on electric vehicles:

  • access to gigabit capable broadband: the Government has set out a clear vision to deliver gigabit capable broadband to at least 85 per cent of UK premises by 2025—in late 2021 this was well underway, reaching over 50 per cent of premises
  • a shift to renewable electricity: there has been a shift towards a highly renewable electricity system, with almost 40 per cent of electricity generated by renewable sources in 2019
  • electric vehicles: government has banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the UK from 2030, following the commission’s recommendation that charging infrastructure should be delivered to enable this shift
  • flooding: the government will invest £5.6 billion over the next six years to reduce the risk of flooding, following commission recommendations
  • drought resilience: government and the water industry in England have taken on the commission’s recommendations to increase water supply and reduce leakage
  • the UK Infrastructure Bank: the independent infrastructure financing institution the commission recommended be established following the UK’s loss of access to the European Investment Bank was launched in June 2021
  • design principles: the government endorsed the commission’s design principles and recommendation for board level design champions on major infrastructure projects.

The commission also identified areas in which infrastructure was performing well, including mobile connectivity and access to clean water:

  • access to mobile connectivity: 92 per cent of the UK landmass is covered by at least one mobile operator, with a funded plan to increase this to 95 per cent by 2026
  • reliable energy supply: the energy sector delivers electricity and gas of reliable quality to consumers—loss of supply is rare, and interruptions to supply are reducing over time
  • access to clean water: the water sector delivers water of reliable quality to homes and businesses across England, with low numbers of service interruptions, and customers are generally satisfied with the water and wastewater services provided.

However, the baseline report also found that in some areas there was still “a lot more that needed to be done”. Specifically, the baseline report highlighted electricity emissions and serious pollution incidents from water and sewerage:

  • emissions from electricity and heat are still too high, as the electricity sector will need to reduce emissions to near zero by 2035, and little progress has been made so far on heat decarbonisation, although the technologies to do so already exist
  • emissions from transport have not been declining, despite improvements in engine efficiency, and, although electric vehicle charge point numbers are increasing, the pace needs to pick up to enable a transition to electric vehicles in the 2020s and 2030s
  • asset maintenance issues undermine performance in some sectors, including ageing and leaky water pipes and potholes in local roads
  • more than five million properties are currently at risk of flooding in England, including more than three million at risk of surface water flooding
  • serious pollution incidents from water and sewerage have plateaued at an unacceptably high level and 32 per cent of water bodies in England do not have good ecological status due to continuous discharges from sewage, and seven per cent due to stormwater overflows
  • recycling rates have plateaued and emissions from waste have begun to rise again, while the total waste generated in England is also increasing
  • urban transport connectivity is poor in many places, and the largest urban areas tend to have the worst connectivity, as congestion slows down journeys
  • there are wide variations in interurban connectivity between similar places, but with no clear regional patterns or trends.

The baseline report also noted that future trends and government commitments will bring new challenges. They include that climate change will make it harder to make and keep infrastructure resilient, and that nature is declining at unprecedented rates which must be addressed. In addition, the report observed that the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to long term changes in where people live and work, and that new and emerging technologies will offer opportunities across sectors with potentially significant implications.

The NIC state that delivering on these challenges will require “bold action, stable plans and long-term funding”. As such, it has identified nine key challenges for the second Assessment, including taking advantage of new digital technologies and boosting urban productivity:

  • all sectors will need to take the opportunities of new digital technologies
  • the electricity system must decarbonise fast to meet the sixth Carbon Budget
  • decarbonising heat will require major changes to the way people heat their homes
  • new networks will be needed for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage
  • good asset management will be crucial as the effects of climate change increase
  • action is needed to improve surface water management as flood risk increases
  • the waste sector must support the move to a circular economy
  • improved urban mobility and reduced congestion can boost urban productivity
  • a multimodal interurban transport strategy can support regional growth.

Recent changes to the commission’s remit

The Government recently made changes to the NIC’s remit which will have a bearing on the production of the Second National Infrastructure Assessment. Alongside the October 2021 Budget, the Treasury published a revised Framework Agreement setting out the NIC’s role. That framework included the addition of a new objective “to support climate resilience and the transition to net zero carbon emissions by 2050”, and a responsibility to consider how the NIC’s recommendations contribute to government’s legal target to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.

The Government has also revised the fiscal remit given to the NIC; the funding envelope within which its recommendations must be funded. In 2016, the then Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, set public investment in economic infrastructure of 1.0–1.2% of GDP in each year between 2020 and 2050. This has now been increased to 1.1–1.3% of GDP for the period between 2025 and 2055.

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Cover image by jaroslaw-igras on Pixabay.