As the new Government seeks to finalise its legislative programme for the Queen's Speech on Wednesday (which is now expected to cover a two year period), those involved in delivering infrastructure projects, whether as procurers, developers or investors, are keen to understand the impact of the new Government's revised programme and policies on the infrastructure sector.
The Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission has, in the last week, helpfully highlighted the need for the Government to continue to invest in the UK's infrastructure and emphasised the strong cross-party political support to do so. This support should ensure that, notwithstanding the minority position of the current government, mega projects such as HS2 will continue and will benefit regional economic growth.
Infrastructure investors will take a closer look at opportunities in Northern Ireland, given discussions between the minority Conservative Government and the Democratic Unionist Party. In the light of last week's tragedy at Grenfell Tower, you would hope that more investment is made in measures to help deliver more housing and improve our existing housing stock.
Equally important to the immediate priorities are the steps that the Government needs to take to put the UK at the heart of better infrastructure delivery in the future. The Institution of Civil Engineers issued a comprehensive report earlier this year (State of the Nation 2017: Digital Transformation) setting out a comprehensive view on the digital transformation of infrastructure with the aim of encouraging the Government and wider stakeholders to put digital transformation at the heart of infrastructure delivery.
The report identified many benefits to smarter infrastructure provision and looking at infrastructure in a whole life way, using data solutions more effectively, and while providing greater resilience.
Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill
One area where the UK is very well placed is the development of the technology and infrastructure to enable Connected and Autonomous Vehicles to become a reality on our roads. The potential economic and societal benefits of this development are immense. Unfortunately, the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill failed to become law in the Government's "wash up" on the calling of the election.
This Bill clarified the insurance framework for liabilities arising from the use of Autonomous Vehicles while in self-driving mode. The previous Government carried out a regulatory review of the changes needed to enable Autonomous Vehicles to operate on our roads and was rightly adopting a "step-by step" approach to regulatory reform, to ensure changes could match technological developments and the actual experiences of using Autonomous Vehicles during the tests.
The previous Government also established the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV), which is a joint policy unit of the Department of Transport and the Department of Business Enterprise and Industrial Strategy. The CCAV is designed to help develop government policy and support a programme of research through Innovate UK, benefiting from funding of up to £200 million to support testing of Autonomous Vehicles by three consortia - UK Autodrive, GATEway and Venturer.
Gowling WLG is part of the UK Autodrive consortium, which is looking at issues concerned with integrating Autonomous Vehicles in a real world environment. As part of this work, Gowling WLG has worked as part of the UK Autodrive Consortium in producing a series of White Papers looking at issues relating to data protection and the moral algorithm (looking at the how driverless vehicles make decisions in dangerous situations and how the programming will be regulated).
Infrastructure and development - public private partnerships
While a number of vehicle manufacturers and technology providers are investing in developing the digital and vehicle technology, there is a risk that the development of the technology of Autonomous Vehicles races ahead of the planning needed to deal with the challenges of delivering the physical network infrastructure to enable Autonomous Vehicles to operate effectively.
Our road infrastructure is delivered through a number of agencies (Highways England, local transport authorities and so on), so planning and co-operation is needed to ensure that the physical network develops over the next few years in a way that enables Autonomous Vehicles to operate. For most authorities, the issue of Autonomous Vehicles is not high on their agendas as they are faced with more pressing demands brought about by the austerity programme.
The infrastructure network operation required to support Autonomous Vehicles could be delivered through a programme of public private partnerships. The UK is a world leader in developing and designing public private partnerships which, despite some bad press, have been used to deliver a variety of infrastructure investment and service solutions, including complex transport systems and air traffic control services.
Long-term public private partnerships could focus on, firstly, helping to design and deliver, during an investment period, the necessary infrastructure changes that create the most effective physical network for Autonomous Vehicles and then, secondly, the network provision required to operate Autonomous Vehicles over a long-term operation period.
Infrastructure funds and investors see UK infrastructure investment as a very attractive asset class and there is no shortage of funds available to invest. There is an opportunity, with appropriate levels of government support, to use private finance to fund the necessary infrastructure changes. Although politically sensitive at the moment, the network provision could be designed to include (if required) the ability to introduce user charging for using certain roads (as is already the case in parts of Europe) contributing towards reducing the costs of the network operation.
As the political drama continues at Westminster, let's hope that the politicians take a long range view on infrastructure provision. In addition to continuing to develop policies and offering funding to support the testing of Autonomous Vehicles, the Government needs to focus on supporting the design and development of the supporting infrastructure. The Government's aim should be to ensure that the UK's regulatory structure, development policies and funding puts the UK in the best possible position to be a global leader in Connected and Autonomous Vehicle technology and the associated supporting infrastructure delivery.