While the UK has taken great strides towards improving national infrastructure prioritization and planning, it is clear that politics and transparency have continued to create challenges for the smooth prioritization and planning of infrastructure.
The reality is that many of the UK’s most controversial projects (those with large costs or significant environmental impacts, for example) are often delayed for political considerations. The decision on whether to grant an expansion to Heathrow or Gatwick, for example, has been delayed for decades, and – at many times – the reason for the delay has been to suit the political calendar.
Clearly, there is no point progressing a proposal that is unlikely to be deliverable – either from a physical, financial or political perspective. Often, the inability to deliver is inter-related; the current decision on London’s airport expansions may be difficult to deliver politically given the promises made in previous elections.
Realistically, no country will ever fully achieve a true separation of politics and infrastructure planning and prioritization. The UK’s framework is certainly better than most and, with the introduction of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), is about to take a bold step forward in terms of independence and greater transparency of analysis and decision making. The NIC will add to the existing positive aspects of the framework: the rigorous appraisal process and the business case requirements that provide considerable confidence that projects will be progressed based on their merit. Confidence is further reinforced by the fact that the Queen ceremonially approves all schemes which makes them difficult to cancel based on purely politics alone.
Appraisal reform has become an important topic – politically and financially – for the UK government. Many are recognizing that cities and regions are starting to take the lead in driving the reform agenda (particularly in transport) and government is now working hard to understand the implications of that trend.
As the Glasgow and Clyde Valley case study (read full report to learn more) illustrates, significant progress is being made through the City Deal program. But even with all of the safeguards, processes and appraisals, the UK framework could go further to improve transparency on infrastructure prioritization. No formal framework exists for evaluating projects across sectors or prioritizing them based on their anticipated economic impacts. Instead, projects have historically tended to be prioritized based on political direction and fierce competition between departments, making it much more difficult for central government authorities to take an objective approach to prioritizing projects. Here is the challenge for the newly formed NIC.
Infrastructure UK’s National Infrastructure Plan has been a case in point: the three main criteria for selecting and prioritizing projects (contribution to economic growth, ability to enhance quality, and ability to unlock private investment) are all rather subjective which means that decisions on which projects and sectors to prioritize are not always transparent.
To learn more, read our full report (PDF 2.5 MB) on economic prioritization, including case studies from the UK and other markets.