Need for ‘significant’ public and private investment in UK infrastructure

Second long-term review sets out role of digital infrastructure in supporting economic growth in UK, but stresses importance of government continuing to support network competition and market deployment

Improved infrastructure to boost economic growth across the UK and meet climate goals is both achievable and affordable if the right policy steps are taken immediately, according to the second National Infrastructure Assessment conducted by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission.

The Commission is the UK government’s independent adviser on infrastructure strategy, and the report sets out a programme of transformation for the country’s energy, transport and other key networks over the next 30 years. It draws on two years of analysis, expert engagement and public research, resulting in what commission chair John Armitt called “probably the most comprehensive assessment yet of the infrastructure costs associated with supporting regional growth and reaching net-zero”.

At the heart of the report is a clear and upfront warning of the need for significant public and private investment in infrastructure if the UK is to rebalance its economic geography, meet climate obligations, improve resilience and enhance the natural environment. It stresses the importance of ensuring the future telecommunications needs of the energy, water and transport sectors are identified, given the role of digital connectivity in delivering critical functionality and strategic objectives.

The report recommends accelerating the market-led deployment of UK 5G by improving the consistency of approvals for 5G masts by planning authorities, including by publishing a list of the best- and worst-performing local authorities for site approvals and encouraging further use of the Shared Access Licence regime to speed up access to spectrum and open up opportunities for new services.

It also calls for developing options for 5G coverage in uncommercial areas, should new use cases demonstrate the need for nationwide coverage. The report notes that achieving this will involve a spectrum authorisation approach that ensures access to adequate spectrum, as well as clear responsibilities in government for delivering telecoms strategies.

The assessment says that, based on current deployment rates, the UK should hit its target for nationwide gigabit-capable coverage by 2030.

However, it highlights the importance of government continuing to support network competition and market deployment, alongside delivering the £5bn Project Gigabit programme to provide coverage to premises that are uncommercial.

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Additionally, it says private investment will be required of a similar annual magnitude over the next decade to complete the broadband network roll-out alongside deploying 5G mobile across the country. Attracting investment to the UK for this and other key infrastructure in the face of global competition will require a new approach, says the Commission. This includes policy stability; pro-investment regulation; speeding up the planning system for major projects; and setting out a clear plan and sticking to it.

The assessment recommends that plans are developed to ensure infrastructure is delivered to meet the identified requirements by, at the latest, 2030 for the energy and water sectors, and 2035 for the road and rail sectors. Government is expected to respond formally to the assessment within 12 months.

Commenting on the report, Armitt said: “The good news is that modern, reliable infrastructure can support economic growth, help tackle climate change and enhance the natural environment. We stand at a pivotal moment in time, with the opportunity to make a major difference to this country’s future.

“But we need to get on with it. People often talk about infrastructure as the backbone of our economy: what our infrastructure needs now is the collective mettle to turn commitments into action that will reap rewards for decades to come.”

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