The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), an independent agency formed to give advice to government, now publishes a major review of infrastructure progress once every five years – the first National Infrastructure Assessment having landed in 2018.
The second assessment, published on Wednesday morning, dropped at an awkward moment for NIC and government alike.
The 222-page review, two years in the making and peering 30 years ahead, was “undertaken on the basis of the delivery of the Integrated Rail Plan [IRP]”, which the government laid out – post-Covid – in November 2021. Notably, the IRP featured HS2 running north from Birmingham to Manchester.
We can only imagine how many expletives were uttered when the northern leg of HS2 was cancelled just two weeks prior to publication of the NIC’s exhaustive study.
If the NIC operates a swear box it must have been suddenly stuffed.
Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, NIC chair Sir John Armitt used a more innocuous four-letter word – ‘snap’ – to aim a sharp prod at No 10.
“We shouldn’t make very snap decisions when it comes to these long-term investments,” Armitt said. “As we’ve already seen, it certainly causes alarm among investors, not only in transport but in other sectors of infrastructure. We need consistency of policy. It was only two years ago that the government established the IRP, which included these aspects of HS2.”
He also said the government should pause for reflection before enacting plans to promptly dispose of land along the defunct HS2 route: “We shouldn’t rush into selling off this land because there still needs to be a proper assessment of how we can increase capacity and the connectivity between Birmingham and Manchester. If we sell off the land too quickly, then we just constrain the opportunities for the future.”
The report calls for urgent details on the government’s replacement Network North proposal, adding that “a number of cities have based their economic growth plans” on a rail plan that no longer applies.
It adds that another rail scheme – East West Rail, linking Cambridge, Milton Keynes and Oxford – also deserves clarity: “It is important that long-term funding is made available for the full route to enable construction of the remaining parts of the line to start in mid-2020s,” the NIC notes.
Derailed transport plans aside, the NIC report also focuses on progress in decarbonisation, including the need to move buildings off the natural gas grid. It advises that hydrogen should be sidelined as an alternative, and urges more generous central subsidies for heat pumps.
The assessment notes that the UK lags substantially behind France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany in the rate of heat pump installations. Europe’s leader, France, provides grants and zero-rate finance and also banned new gas connections and replacement oil boilers in 2022. The NIC recommends offering UK homeowners and landlords a £7,000 subsidy towards heat pump installation or connection to a district heat network, plus zero-rate finance.
Grants would make a huge difference to the uptake of heat pumps. That is one snap decision that the government really ought to make, sooner rather than later.