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Second National Infrastructure Assessment: the good, the bad and the next steps

Ada Lee is the Royal Town Planning Institute's Infrastructure and Climate Change Specialist.

It has been an eventful few weeks for infrastructure planning: green targets were rolled back and the northern leg of HS2 was cancelled. It was amid this policy climate that the Second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) was launched. Undoubtedly, the report contains many important recommendations, including the need for policy clarity and stability. However, it also missed the opportunity for more strategic, integrative thinking.

NIA2 was published by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) – an Executive Agency of the Treasury established in 2017. The five-yearly report analyses the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs and provides expert advice to the government. It holds a significant place in infrastructure planning as the government is obliged to respond to the report’s recommendations.

A call for stability

This year, the report was split into three themes: (i) energy and net zero, (ii) supporting growth across regions and (iii) improving resilience and the environment. The overarching message is that action is urgent in the face of the climate crisis and that government policy must be clear and stable in order to attract investment.

This call for stability came amid a streak of drastic policy changes, serving as an important reminder that policy uncertainty is a key cause of planning delays. The cancellation of HS2’s northern leg is for example likely to lead to delays in several local plans as the initial assumptions of HS2-driven investment have to be reassessed.

Particularly relevant to infrastructure planning, out-of-date National Policy Statements (NPSs) have long been recognised as a barrier to the speedy delivery of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP). NIA2 has repeated the call in NIA1 to make five-yearly reviews of key NPSs a legal requirement. As the RTPI has stated elsewhere (‘Planning reform: Infrastructure planning’), this will ensure infrastructure policy is clear and up-to-date and that it responds to contemporary needs.

Thinking spatially and strategically

Prior to its launch, there had been a lot of anticipation that the assessment would carry a strong spatial element. At the RTPI, we believe that it is important to state not only what infrastructure we need but also where they are going to go. This is also a position we have long advocated for, most recently in our response to the NSIP procedural reform consultation.

NIA2’s spatial element came in the form of two maps and one statement. The first map concerns pipeline networks for hydrogen and carbon (Figure 2.7 in the report, p. 71); the second visualises areas in England where existing transport infrastructure needs improvements (Figure 3.4, p. 91). In addition, the report named four cities where poor transport networks have been a constraint on growth: Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol.

While these certainly represent a step in the right direction, I cannot help but think an opportunity is missed for more strategic, integrative thinking. The question NIA2 is addressing is where one particular type of infrastructure should be located. The questions we should be asking however are how different types of infrastructure should be spread across different regions, whether there are areas that are going to bear a heavier load than others and how these projects can then be delivered in partnership with local communities. Not only would such a strategically spatial approach enhance transparency and certainty, but it would also foster better integration and coordination between different projects.

The NIC is in a unique position to deliver such a vision as it transcends departmental fragmentation and is tasked with taking a comprehensive approach towards infrastructure planning. While the report does call for the development of ‘a central coordination and oversight mechanism’ (p.146) by the end of this year, the strength of the spatial element in such a mechanism remains to be seen.

Benefits for local communities

Another point in NIA2 that the RTPI is delighted to see is the emphasis on community engagement. However, there are several caveats. The report recommended the development of a framework of direct benefits for local communities and individuals in areas where nationally significant infrastructure is built but delivers few local benefits. As stated in our response to the onshore wind consultation earlier this year, while we agree that community benefits can play an important role in building support for new projects, methods such as local retrofit and community ownership schemes would be more appropriate than electricity bill reductions.

‘Place plans’ – mechanisms used in Scotland and Wales to involve communities in plan development – make an appearance towards the end of this NIA. While there has been some degree of success in the use of place plans, let’s not forget about neighbourhood plans in England. They are potentially powerful tools that sit alongside local plans and carry weight in the decision making process on planning applications. The inclusion of place plans in the report raises the question of whether neighbourhood plans can play a bigger role in infrastructure planning despite their current weaknesses as highlighted by for example Parker et al (‘Sticking to the script? The co-production of Neighbourhood Planning in England’, 2019).

Next steps: national spatial plan for energy infrastructure?

All in all, NIA2 came at a moment when policy stability and direction is much needed. It is a significant document that has addressed many of the key issues today. Going forward, we would like to see more strategic and integrative thinking, alongside genuine community engagement.

As the Prime Minister announced the rollback on green targets, he also promised the introduction of a national spatial plan for energy infrastructure. Little detail has emerged so far. A plausible way of delivering such a spatial vision could be through the addition of a map to the energy NPS, which was last updated in March 2023. An alternative would be to start all over again, with a full review of the current NPS. Either way, by being more specific about locations in the NPS, the NSIP consenting process can provide significantly more certainty to communities and scheme promoters. This may, in turn, help to speed up infrastructure delivery. At the RTPI, we look forward to a strategic infrastructure plan that will deliver clarity, stability and transparency.

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