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Mon August 02 2021

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Engineers push for reform of the National Infrastructure Commission

13 Jul On the third anniversary of the National Infrastructure Commission’s first national infrastructure assessment, there comes a call for reform.

ICE past president Paul Sheffield took the lead in producing the ICE's paper
ICE past president Paul Sheffield took the lead in producing the ICE's paper

The Institution of Civil Engineers says that the government should update the objectives of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to include net-zero and sustainable development goals.

It also says that the NIC needs to “improve the transparency and consistency of how it arrives at its recommendations”.

Another ICE recommendation for change is that publication of a National Infrastructure Strategy, at least once every five years, be enshrined in legislation.

The National Infrastructure Commission was meant to take the politics out of infrastructure planning, to provide consensus on national priorities. It has inevitably not exactly worked out that way. Infrastructure planning is inherently political, the weighing in the balance of competing priorities and their relative cost/benefit/harm.

However, it would help, according to the ICE, if backbench MPs paid more attention to the NIC and considered it a resource for parliamentary committees.

As the NIC gears up to deliver its second national infrastructure assessment, the Institution of Civil Engineers has explored the impact of the new strategic infrastructure planning and prioritisation approach*.

It says: “As an advisor not just to government, but to the entire infrastructure system, the NIC has the ability to infuse its expert insight in all political debates on strategic infrastructure planning, the report says. Such insight could be better used by Parliament, through select committee inquiries where the NIC can offer views on the conclusions of government-commissioned reports on infrastructure or where government can be made to respond to the commission's annual monitoring report.”

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Former ICE president Paul Sheffield said in an ICE blog post: “Our review found the NIC and strategic infrastructure planning process of the last five years has delivered benefits. The NIC has enabled the role of infrastructure development to be elevated in the national policy debate and has streamlined policy making, providing clarity on why interventions are needed and chaperoning the debate through the various stages.

“The NIC has spearheaded pan-industry and sector perspectives on crucial aspects of infrastructure policy. It has provided guidance and advice on reform in the areas of infrastructure resilience, regulation and the use of data and has moved the debate on to look at solutions.”

He continues: “The early benefits above are worth building on to ensure the UK approach to strategic infrastructure planning is geared toward delivering on the significant challenges of our time – ‘levelling-up’, infrastructure decarbonisation and adapting to new models of behaviour post-pandemic. Our recommendations focus on unlocking sustainable economic benefits by improving the transparency, consistency and certainty of the strategic infrastructure planning system by codifying and evolving practice.”

He adds: “The NIC could play a far more significant role in aligning infrastructure development to social, economic, and environmental needs. When developing its work, the NIC targets the objectives set out in its framework document. Our paper calls for an update to these objectives to include the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the net-zero emissions target. Both of these are targets that Parliament has committed to as long-term ambitions for the country.

“ICE is engaging with Parliament, officials and the NIC to look at how these recommendations can be adopted so that the UK's strategic infrastructure planning process delivers even greater benefits in the future.”

 * - Read the full policy position statement, Evolving the UK strategic infrastructure planning system post-National Infrastructure Strategy.

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