ICE report raises concerns over UK infrastructure

David Orr
Former President, ICE

Infrastructure is vital to our nation.  It is a complex and interdependent system which provides us with the energy, transport, water and other essentials that are the basis of our civilised society and our economic well-being.

So it’s a great concern that ICE’s independent assessment State of the Nation: Infrastructure 2010 finds significant deficiencies in these critical national assets. 

But perhaps it’s not a surprise.

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest annual Global Competitiveness Report the UK currently sits distinctly mid-table compared to the rest of the world in terms of its basic infrastructure networks. And the public and press often characterise our infrastructure as ‘creaking’, ageing’ and ‘stretched’.

The ICE report highlights the massive challenges facing us the UK’s transport, energy, flood, water and waste infrastructure, and made recommendations that will allow it to drive our economic recovery and shift to a low carbon society.

Urgent decisions are needed on nuclear power, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage to esnure we have a reliable, clean source of energy for the future.

Faring worst was the energy sector, as peak demand creeps closer to maximum supply every day. Urgent decisions are needed on nuclear power, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage to esnure we have a reliable, clean source of energy for the future.

Local roads and public transport also ranked poorly. This is not just the aftermath of the worst winter in a generation, but also the result of chronic under-funding of road maintenance, over-reliance on private car and lack of integrate public transport. But our strategic motorways and long distance rail networks are generally in good condition, although more rail capacity is urgently needed and road user charging or some other form of demand management is necessary.

Waste and flood risk management infrastructure need ‘significant attention’

Both waste and flood risk management infrastructure need ‘significant attention’ mainly down to the need for innovation in future approaches. We need to make more use of adaptive natural drainage systemes such as SUDS, and to improve community engagement to set realistic expectations about flood risk. And the waste sector must change its approach entirely, focusing on designing out waste and developing a national resource management plan. 

Our water network is assessed as ‘adequate for now’, mainly due to the benefits of regulatory-driven investment over the last twenty years, but demand management measures must be implemented to bring it into line with long-term carbon emissions goals and the impacts of climate change.

This assessment will be a daunting challenge to those with responsibility for our infrastructure, particularly in the current economic situation. But while new and innovative funding methods are essential, equally important is managing demand and ensuring good value for hard-pressed capital investment. This will require urgent and sustained attention from Government and industry alike.

For a start, it is really important to take a long-term strategic view of our infrastructure priorities. The creation of Infrastructure-UK is an important step towards achieving this and ICE will continue to support and inform its work. It will require strong backing from the new government however, if it is to make the right decisions to meet the challenges outlined in our report.  

The biggest challenge undoubtedly will be finding the funds to deliver critical projects in the current climate

Likewise, it is crucial that the platform already in place to facilitate delivery of major projects is retained and supported – like the Chief Construction Adviser and the National Planning Statements. And government must deliver on its promise to replace Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) with an “efficient and democratically accountable” planning system to fast-track nationally significant projects.

The biggest challenge undoubtedly will be finding the funds to deliver critical projects in the current climate. ICE has long campaigned for a new funding mechanism, beyond the scope of the Green Investment Bank, to attract the large quantities of private finance necessary.

Specifically we have proposed the creation of a National Infrastructure Investment Bank. A NIIB could take equity stakes in riskier projects to create a platform on which private sector debt finance can be levered in. Successful investment would create valuable assets, which could then be used as security for future fund raising on capital markets.

Above all, we must recognise that our infrastructure as an inter-dependent system to be addressed on a strategic and integrated way to ensure a sustainable and low carbon approach.

Let us remember that the nation that neglects its infrastructure neglects its future.  But the nation that respects its infrastructure respects its people, and provides for their sustainable future.