UK government warned of ‘slow progress’ on infrastructure plans

Annual report from UK’s official independent infrastructure adviser warns that progress on gigabit roll-out may be at risk, and sets out infrastructure priorities for 2022

Despite its current travails, one of the UK government’s better accomplishments since election in 2019 has been to steer the acceleration of gigabit broadband across the UK, but a report by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has highlighted the risk attached to delivering the aims of the National Infrastructure Strategy unless it picks up the pace with detailed policy design and implementation.

The report from the UK’s official independent infrastructure adviser, its annual review of government progress on infrastructure, fundamentally makes clear that long-term goals are now in place across most infrastructure areas, and gives credit for increased investment – a £100bn commitment over the next three years, alongside an indication of increased spending in the long-term.

It also notes that some of the advisory body’s key recommendations have been delivered this year, including the creation of the UK Infrastructure Bank, and that both gigabit broadband coverage and renewable electricity capacity have continued to increase.

The report praises the government for making good progress on supporting new digital infrastructure networks, and rates the delivery of full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband networks as progressing rapidly. It also notes that the government has set out ambitious targets for 4G coverage in the Shared Rural Network agreement with industry.

Given that in 2021, gigabit-capable coverage was extended to 65% of premises, NIC believes that if operators deliver on their published plans, and progress continues to be made on the delivery of the government’s £5bn subsidy programme Project Gigabit, government will likely achieve its high-level targets. This, it said, demonstrates a genuine commitment to change.

Yet it also warns that slow progress in other areas poses threats to achieving key objectives at the heart of the National Infrastructure Strategy, the UK government document, published in 2020, that set out plans for infrastructure to help boost economic growth across all parts of the UK and meet the net-zero emissions target by 2050. 

Indeed, NIC notes in its report that since publication, “some of the strategies government has developed over the last year lack detailed delivery policy, leave key gaps, or simply do not go far enough”. It adds that across both fixed and mobile networks, government must ensure that hard-to-reach areas do not get left behind.

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The report also flags the need for big decisions on how the net-zero transition will be funded. “Ultimately, that will either be taxpayers, consumers or a combination of both,” it said.

“But ensuring the costs are distributed fairly is critical. Delays to decisions on who pays are now holding up delivering infrastructure, including low carbon heat and energy efficiency. Open and honest conversations, followed by clear decisions, are needed to address this.”

The review identified a number of actions that the NIC said should be government infrastructure priorities for 2022, including setting out an assessment of the country’s future wireless connectivity needs and how mobile networks will need to evolve to meet future demand, articulating the balance between what the market can deliver and where government needs to intervene.

“At a time of significant global volatility alongside concerns about rising living costs, we appreciate that sticking to a long-term strategy is not easy,” said NIC chair John Armitt.

“But it is the only way to address the stubbornly difficult problems that will not become any easier or cheaper to solve by delaying action – and the quicker we tackle them, the quicker society and our environment will reap the benefits.”

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