The UK’s energy sector and local transport networks have fared the worst in an appraisal of the nation’s infrastructure released today by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). It found the UK’s infrastructure to be in poor condition overall and warned the new Government it has very little time to act if we are to have sustainable, working water, waste, energy and transport networks in the future.
The report, an independent assessment of the UK’s infrastructure designed to outline priorities for the new Government, scored our water, waste, transport, flood and energy systems against the backdrop of public spending cuts, the urgent need to shift to a low carbon society and a recovering economy.
Within each sector, the existing infrastructure – power stations, road and rail networks, water treatment plants, waste facilities for example – were appraised on general condition, capacity, resilience and sustainability. Finally the impact of significant budget cuts was evaluated. An overall grade was given for each: A: fit for future; B: adequate for now; C: requires attention; D: at risk or E: not fit for purpose.
Former ICE president and chair of the project steering group David Orr said the results were extremely concerning: "Infrastructure underpins the very existence of civilised society, so finding two crucial sectors – energy and local transport – to be ‘at risk’ is very worrying for the nation’s future development and productivity.
"Without effective, sustainable infrastructure the UK risks losing its position as a world-leader, failing in its goal to be environmentally responsible and being unable to maintain a high quality of life for its population. There is only a small window of opportunity to address this – the decisions we make in the next five years will determine the future livelihood of our nation."
The energy sector (graded a ‘D’) gave the most cause for concern, in light of the massive challenges it faces to ensure security of supply in future. In particular the report noted the need to urgently address the lack of spare capacity, with maximum supply currently very close to peak demand. It stressed that Government must make crucial decisions in the next five years on renewable energy sources, nuclear power stations and technologies that can make fossil fuel power generation cleaner, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), if we are to keep the lights on.
Local transport was also deemed to be ‘at risk’, with far too much dependence on private car travel, and local roads in ‘poor condition’. An increasingly large backlog of maintenance work, worsened by the severe weather this winter, would make any funding cuts disastrous. The report called for local public transport networks to be improved, both in terms of capacity and integration with national networks, to encourage a shift from private cars, and for local roads to be brought up to a satisfactory level through adequate funding and better asset management.
Other sectors in a snapshot:
Water (B): Twenty years of regulatory-driven investment means water infrastructure is generally working well. However, major reductions in demand are needed to bring it into line with long-term carbon emissions goals.
Strategic transport networks (B): Generally good condition however some form of demand management is needed to manage limited road capacity.
Waste (C): Our entire approach to waste must change. The waste industry should be looking to become suppliers – of fuel, compost, manufacturing materials. It is also imperative we reduce the waste going to landfill to avoid infraction fines from the EU.
Flood risk management (C): Current investment in flood risk management must continue however in the long-term our approach must change dramatically.
David Orr continued: "To retain the UK’s economic and global competitivity, achieve a low carbon economy and keep the lights on Government must take a long-term strategic view of our infrastructure priorities. While finding new and innovative funding methods will be imperative, so will managing demand and making sure we get good value for our hard-pressed capital investment resources.
"The immediate focus must be on securing a reliable and clean supply of energy, creating capacity and better connections in our local transport networks and most importantly, creating a supportive environment within which utility owners and industry are confident to invest. We are only just coming out of the recession and the way forward is to continue to invest for the future, not cut budgets to make short-term gains."
ICE believes Government must address several issues to ensure the UK meets the infrastructure challenges ahead of us:
Provide a clear strategic roadmap for infrastructure priorities and delivery in the long-term. This requires reforms already in place – Infrastructure-UK, planning regime, Chief Construction Officer, National Planning Statements – to be retained and supported.
Recognising at a strategic level that all infrastructure networks are inter-dependent – we need to adopt an integrated approach, particularly to sustainability
Creating a new funding mechanism, beyond the scope of the Green Investment Bank, to attract the large quantities of private finance necessary. ICE has long campaigned for a National Infrastructure Investment Bank
Delivering on its promise to replace Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) with an "efficient and democratically accountable" planning system to fast-track nationally significant projects
David Orr concluded:
"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. ICE has laid the foundations for the debate on one of the greatest issues facing our nation."
ICE President Paul Jowitt added: "That the UK’s infrastructure is in such a state is no surprise – the ICE’s last assessment made the same conclusions five years ago. However, the urgency is obviously much greater now and while ICE acknowledges positive steps have been made, in particular the creation of Infrastructure-UK, we sincerely hope the new Government will take the lead to pull the UK’s infrastructure out of a ‘C’ ranking, making urgent decisions and delivering much-needed infrastructure."
Welcoming the report, Paul Morrell, the Government’s Chief Construction Adviser, said "It is no secret that some very tough choices are going to have to be made as we learn to live within our means whilst maintaining both growth and a proper level of public services. One watchword over the coming months is therefore going to be "priorities". The vital importance of physical infrastructure in keeping society energised and on the move, in providing less obvious (but no less important) public utilities, in managing risk, and in supporting economic growth and attracting inward investment is, I believe, fully recognised in Government. What is more difficult is to identify priorities in a tough spending round. This has to start with engineering, and the Institution of Civil Engineers’ State of the Nation series is a hugely valuable contribution to the thinking now required to confirm those priorities, making visible the state of systems that are often too invisible to proclaim their own importance."