The need for increased investment into our infrastructure is not in question. The debate is on what should be prioritised and, in some cases, how it should be consented and who should deliver it.

As a vision for UK infrastructure the National Needs Assessment (NNA) (published last week), is a step change in the process to deliver an integrated approach to UK infrastructure requirements.

The NNA vision is clear: "The UK will invest efficiently, affordably and sustainably in infrastructure assets and services that will drive the economic growth necessary to enhance the UK’s position in the global economy, support a high quality of life and realise a low carbon future."

In particular, the NNA calls for an integrated cross-sector approach to the UK’s future infrastructure needs.

The NNA states quite simply that infrastructure provides the services that enable society and the economy to function. It continues, "(…) We often notice when it goes wrong or if it blights our lives. We ignore it when it functions properly. It is present in our everyday lives from the moment we boil the kettle, turn on the shower, journey to work and turn the light out to go to sleep. And even then it continues to work away tirelessly to ensure we can repeat the pattern all over again."

The NNA's purpose is to provide the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) with a blueprint for its own National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA).

Earlier this month it was confirmed that the NIC (launched last year), will become an executive agency of HM Treasury. It will not have a statutory basis.

The NIC's core purpose is to set out a clear picture of the future infrastructure. This includes an in-depth assessment of the UK’s major infrastructure needs on a 30-year time horizon; that will be the NIC's NIA.

The NIC has already advised Government on transport in the North of England and London, as well as energy flexibility. It is currently working on studies on 5G connectivity and the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge economic corridor and the conclusions are due next year. The NIC also has a live call for ideas for future studies.

The NNA is bold in its statements and clear in its recommendations. It states that "the UK is a long way from having the modern infrastructure networks that are required by a world-leading economy." In this context and amid other threats from environmental and socio-economic factors the NNA makes its recommendations.

The NNA is clear that it is not just about building more. It is also about how we can use what we already have more efficiently and optimised with technology. The NNA's key recommendations are summarised below.

  • With insufficient housing supply, major housing proposals (5,000+ units) should be considered as part of the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime to create in-principle support and enable developers to partner with local authorities and other organisations to deliver in particular the on and off-site infrastructure required
  • For the foreseeable future the NNA considers supply needs to be 300,000 homes per year with the current delivery rate not much more than one third of that.

Low carbon electricity generation

  • Government should commit to a plan for low carbon electricity generation with a diverse mix of energy generation based on nuclear, renewables, gas and interconnectors ensuring security of supply until at least 2035. The NIA should also set out alternative strategies for energy security post 2035
  • There should be greater use of smart energy to reduce the need for new power projects, reducing costs for consumers.

Road and rail

  • The NIC should identify priority routes for capacity improvements on the strategic road and rail networks. This includes completion of HS2, Phases 1, 2A and 2B as well as developing business cases for the extension of high speed rail networks to Scotland, the South-West and across the Northern Powerhouse. There should also be increased investment in the commuter rail network to ensure the economic development of town centres
  • On the roads, to support the rapid development and implementation of autonomous vehicles for both freight and passenger traffic, the Government should enable the roll out of in vehicle technologies.

Airports

  • With a number of airports set to reach runway capacity in the next decade, following the recommendation on the additional capacity for the south east (due out this week), the DfT should deliver a National Policy Statement (NPS) to set out a plan to achieve this capacity which will serve the entire country's economic growth.

Broadband

  • The private sector should be incentivised to roll out ultra-fast broadband, and if not delivered, the Government should intervene.

Water supplies

  • Given the national impacts of a severe drought, the Government should review the case for establishing minimum standards of resilience for water supplies.

Waste and recycling

  • The Government should develop and implement strategies to encourage greater recycling and reuse. This includes a strategy to develop a circular economy to close the loop of product lifecycles.

What are the next steps?

Given one of the NNA's authors is Sir John Armitt, in his role as President of the Institute of Civil Engineers (and now appointed as Interim Deputy Chair of the NIC), there is a fair degree of probability that a number of the recommendations will work their way into the NIC's NIA. But the extent to which any of these proposals will ever come forward is probably too early to say.

However the current regulatory regimes for each of these sectors have constraints which can control delivery. Government incentives such as the Electricity Capacity Market Rules need to strike a balance to facilitate projects.

The NSIP regime has been a success. It will come into particular focus when the application(s) to resolve the airport capacity challenges in the South East come forward.

Changes to the Planning Act 2008 will bring an element of housing into the NSIP regime. Indications are that government guidance will limit this to 500 units, once the change is brought into force. But a step change is needed. In light of the NNA's conclusion we commend their call for housing to be included within the NSIP regime. As the NNA points out those projects (and all others) need to form part of an integrated approach to our infrastructure requirements.

Bond Dickinson is a market leader in advising on the consenting of NSIPs. We have also contributed extensively to the debate on the inclusion of housing into the NSIP regime. Our report produced last year with Quod concluded that:

"In light of the specific advantages of the NSIP regime, central government should as a matter of urgency, consult on a proposal to bring housing within the NSIP regime as an alternative to or additional to existing frameworks capable of bringing forward large-scale housing schemes for consent."