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Infrastructure report fails to challenge fiscal constraints

Martina Juvara, Urban Silence London EC2A
27 October 2017

There are many reasons why the National Infrastructure Commission interim report was exactly what was needed (LTT 13 Oct). Congestion, Capacity, Carbon – Priorities for National Infrastructure makes a strong link between prosperity and infrastructure from the very first lines of introduction. Hopefully, from now on, standalone technical approaches will change for good. There will be no longer transport ‘solutions’ that undermine city centres and cut off neighbourhoods. Indeed, there will be ‘no solutions by perpetuating the status quo’.

The report is a wonderful mix of high ambition and practical recommendations: it declares support for seven big and challenging Key Priorities, from promoting a digital society to supporting city-regions to delivering new homes; it requires a change of trends and new ways adaptable to a flexible vision of the future. All this underpinned by interesting suggestions: the institution of a National Design Panel for Infrastructure to ensure that new investment is well designed, and new ways of measuring benefits and pricing services and road use.

But is this report really pure gold? I do not think so. In places it descends too quickly into practical solutions that sound like short cuts. The first one is the acceptance of the fiscal remit. Naturally, we are all aware that our prime minister cannot shake a magic money tree, but if incremental change is no longer enough and infrastructure is so vital to our wellbeing and success as a nation, why is the assessment dimensioned to a 1-1.2% of GDP up to 2050? The world will have changed by then - think 1917-1950 – and then double the speed of change… 

Any business only investing this small percentage of revenues in equipment and innovations would surely fail: will a whole nation succeed? Even more disappointing is that the remit is accepted without questioning nor justification. No confirmation that this is a fair amount. How much is spent in Germany or Japan? Or maybe it is just a sad reality: far from what we need, but really all that can be afforded. A necessity that will need to drive tough choices and a bit of ingenuity. But we do not know. As it is, with no commentary and no questions asked, this apparent blind acceptance might undermine the credibility of the whole ambition – something like wanting to cook a wonderful meal, but being reluctant to pay for good ingredients. 

And another example: on page 18 (in the executive summary) we hear about the transport revolution. There seems to be a great emphasis on vehicles, rather than the places and the people that can take advantage of the change: “Society will need to make choices about what changes in road design and use are acceptable to maximise the benefits of connected and autonomous vehicles”, and “it is time to consider how road infrastructure and use should be replanned or redesigned”. How exciting! So much energy and determination: society called to drive the cities of the future. I could not wait to read the actual chapter and recommendations – but here is where the ambition turned far too quickly into the mere practical: levies for electric vehicles, charging points, platooning on motorways. The anticipated revolution had already died, in the space of less than 120 pages.

Admittedly, ambition and practicality may be hard to keep hand in hand. That is why all our help is needed – by answering to the consultation before 12 January.    

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