UK Infrastructure Chief Warns Gov Not to Make “Vague Promises”

uk fibre optic broadband cable

The Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, has warned the UK Government not to merely “pay lip service” to their proposals for improving broadband, 5G, energy and transport by “restating existing policy” and offering “vague promises” when they set a National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS) this autumn.

Over the past year the NIC has written several reports into the state of telecoms, energy and transport infrastructure across the United Kingdom (e.g. here and here). In keeping with that Armitt’s new open letter to the Government’s Chancellor, Philip Hammond MP, recognises that there has been “welcome progress in many areas, particularly on waste and water, and on digital connectivity,” including the commitment to nationwide “full fibre” (FTTP/H) broadband coverage by 2033.

However Armitt has also pledged to hold the government’s “feet to the fire” in order to ensure that the final infrastructure strategy delivers a “genuine, shared vision for the future of the country“. In order to achieve that the NIC will thus be expecting some solid funding commitments, not least to help ensure that full fibre reaches “rural and remote communities.

NIC’s Key Tests for the National Infrastructure Strategy

A long term perspective

First, it needs to take a long-term perspective, looking beyond the immediate spending review period to set out the government’s expectations for infrastructure funding and policy over the decades to come [up to 2050], in line with the Commission’s remit and Assessment.

Clear goals and plans to achieve them

Second, it will need to specify clear goals and concrete plans to achieve them. Where the government endorses our recommendations, this should be underpinned by specific actions with proper deadlines and owners, to allow progress to be tracked and the desired outcomes to be achieved. Where it does not, it should provide a clear rationale which engages with the arguments set out in the National Infrastructure Assessment.

A firm funding commitment

Third, these need to be backed by a firm fiscal commitment, reflecting the fact that the upper bound of our funding guideline of 1.2% (of GDP) is needed to do anything more than meet current commitments over the next decade. Within this, the specific goals and plans should be matched with detailed funding allocations.

A genuine commitment to change

Fourth, it needs to demonstrate a genuine commitment to change. Many of our recommendations, whether on nuclear power, urban transport, electric and autonomous vehicles or flood risk management, do not represent tweaks to existing policy but a fundamental shift. The strategy needs to respond in the same spirit.

The forthcoming £200m Gigabit Rural Connectivity Programme, which so far looks set to involve a mix of support for rural schools (here) and a voucher scheme (like the existing Gigabit Voucher Scheme), is one of the new “full fibre” booster projects that will be announced in the very near future.

However it will still take billions of pounds more in order to fully close the rural fibre gap, which we suspect will not be something that is fully planned for and funded by the new strategy (i.e. probably too soon to do that awhile they’re still focused upon fostering ISPs to do most of the initial work themselves).

Sir John Armitt said:

“The Commission was established to encourage a radical change in the way the UK plans and funds its infrastructure for the long term. These four tests represent our minimum requirements ahead of this autumn’s Spending Review for determining the effectiveness of the government’s response.

We’ve seen positive steps from government in adopting our recommendations on reducing water leakage and tackling waste. But those were the easy wins. Real change is required if we are to boost our economic prosperity and quality of life up to 2050. That requires the government’s National Infrastructure Strategy to be bold and transformative and commit to major changes like devolving funding for cities transport.

We’ve put forward a costed plan for how we do that, backed up by a wealth of new evidence in support. We now need the government to step up to the plate and share our ambition to create a bold future for the infrastructure that people across the country will use every day of their lives.”

An Openreach spokesperson said:

“We agree with Sir John Armitt that building the right infrastructure for the mid-21st century will help shape a new national and global identity. And for us, the right infrastructure for the future is digital.

The Government’s 2033 ambition for nationwide full-fibre broadband is a bold one, and we’ve been encouraged by its intentions to support private investment, but we urgently need action to address major barriers – including an illogical tax on full-fibre infrastructure.

This is a hugely complex national engineering project, but the benefits to UK productivity, prosperity and the environment could be immeasurable. And, if it’s going to happen, we’re determined for Openreach lead the way.”

Admittedly it’s unclear, aside from being very vocal, precisely how the NIC intends to hold the Government’s “feet to the fire” if they don’t see what they want in the forthcoming strategy. The NIC merely exists to provide the government with “impartial, expert advice on major long-term infrastructure challenges” and doesn’t itself have much power.

Not that we disagree with the sentiment, but at times the NIC can come across as somewhat of a toothless ideas factory. Meanwhile a spokesperson for HM Treasury said, “In this parliament, public investment will reach its highest sustained level for 40 years, helping fund major improvements to our infrastructure. This includes the biggest rail investment since Victorian times, and the largest ever strategic roads programme.”

UPDATE 11:47am

Added a comment from Openreach (BT) above.

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