A joined up approach to infrastructure planning. Will the fresh approach help get Britain moving?

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A survey conducted on behalf of the CBI, revealed 58% of British businesses rank Britain’s infrastructure below that of other EU countries. This perhaps isn’t surprising. It is however concerning and raises the question of what needs to be done to make Britain’s infrastructure not just fit for purpose, but of a standard that will enable the UK to become globally competitive and attractive to investors once more. Planning is often blamed for delays, but are these caused solely by the system or there other factors at play?

While once an industrial powerhouse the UK is no longer a shining example of first class infrastructure. Capacity is a real issue for both power generation and transport. The resilience of ageing systems is also more and more apparent – the flooding in 2007 of a water treatment works that cut off the supply to 350,000 people for 17 days being a case in point. Finally, a failure to plan for future demand has led to a considerable barrier to nurturing the skills needed to develop a world class infrastructure.

As the UK battles to emerge from recession and regain its position as a world leader, Policy Exchange has estimated that at least £400 billion will be required over the coming decade to address current needs - a figure that simply won’t be met without an effective system in place. High profile projects such as High Speed 2, the upgrade of the A14 link road to Felixstowe and a 21st century power generation system are all well documented, but are merely the tip of the iceberg.

It is generally accepted that ultimate responsibility must sit with government. In the same way that the economic crisis led government, acting in the public interest, to intervene in banking, so too must they do the same in order to push forward our nation’s infrastructure. Indeed, government is the only body able to consistently and clearly align all elements of the planning process (regulation, finance and planning itself) to a successful outcome.

Infrastructure UK (IUK) was established within HM Treasury in 2010 to address this very demand. It has a remit to provide a stronger focus on the UK’s long-term infrastructure priorities and meet the challenge of attracting private sector investment. It is also required to achieve greater value for money, which with £200 billion of investment planned over the next five years is absolutely vital.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published in draft form in July 2011 and sets out plans to make the planning system less complex and more accessible, whilst promoting sustainable growth throughout the UK. Seemingly therefore plans are in place to ensure the planning system doesn’t hinder the advancement of the UK’s vital infrastructure. However, progress is still slow so are other factors at play?

Undoubtedly, the UK’s current economic circumstances are proving challenging. The availability of private finance is likely to be constrained for some time, and where it is available, it is often at higher cost and over shorter payback periods which can put immense strain on projects. At times of economic uncertainty there is also increased scrutiny on whether major infrastructure projects deliver genuine value for money – this scrutiny in itself delays progress. Of course, there will always be opposition from the public themselves. In the case of the NPPF, this is not least of all the case in rural communities where there is a fear that if it is taken in to law, it will jeopardise green belt areas.

The UK’s infrastructure undoubtedly requires urgent attention and if the findings of the CBI’s report are to be believed, no-one is feeling this more than the UK’s business community. The government is implementing changes to the current system but only time will tell whether this will be the change that is necessary.