Ramboll experts respond to the first ever National Infrastructure Assessment

13 July 2018
Earlier this week the first ever National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) was launched making recommendations around the UK’s future economic infrastructure needs that the government will be required to formally respond to. They include a range of topics including low carbon energy, revolutionising road transport, reducing the risks of drought and flooding, and liveable cities.

Mathew Riley. Ramboll

Mathew Riley

Managing Director
T: +44 20 7631 5291

Chris Fry

Director of Infrastructure & Regeneration
T: +44 23 8081 7500

The response from industry and press has, in the main, been positive, although it raises some questions as to how the government will make these ideals a reality. Below you can read more on Ramboll’s response to the NIA. 

A welcome step, but should we go further?

Mathew Riley, UK Managing Director commented, “The NICs National Infrastructure Assessment is certainly a step in the right direction and gives a better understanding of the UK’s infrastructure needs, a clearer picture of associated impacts and clear backing for some critical infrastructure projects.  

“Whilst the NIC is making great progress and giving a clear voice, it does ultimately operate within the constraints set by the Treasury. I would welcome more devolved powers to bodies that are better protected from political instability, who can be close to infrastructure needs at both a national and local level, and who can take a stronger stance on delivering our infrastructure.  

“I would like to see a follow on to the NIA that assesses what else our nation needs to be able to operate well into the 21st Century, compare this to what we can currently afford and produce a gap analysis. Then we can have an open debate on whether we should go further faster, or live within the financial parameters currently imposed by Treasury. 

“The fundamental needs of our social and economic infrastructure have not changed, but how we pay for them will. We know traditional industry business models are evolving, and during the timescales of the NIA will also see a shift in how we pay for our infrastructure.

“We are currently working to a spend of 1.0-1.2% GDP pa between 2020-2050. Yet a 2016 report found that the UK’s spend on infrastructure 2010-2015 was 2.1% GDP pa. A 1.0-1.2% GDP pa is simply not enough to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure of a developed nation. Greater devolvement of powers may help us to avoid infrastructure problems being passed on to the next generation.”

Driving more joined-up thinking

“The recommendations crystalise years of work and many good ideas that together form a better approach to infrastructure to deliver better quality of life and economic outcomes” says Chris Fry, Director of Infrastructure and Development, before warning that “it only really marks the end of the beginning - the hard work of implementation is still to come, even once recommendations are adopted by government. In practice the implementation will involve aligning many hundreds of organisations with the new agenda, but over time this has a good chance of success in an industry that is hungry for change. The NIC’s ambitions will also be given a helping hand by a range of ongoing collaborative initiatives, notably on digitalisation, innovation and new contracting and business models. 

“Joined-up thinking is a welcome theme. The interdependencies between the energy, digital communication and mobility of the future are recognised at a macro scale, as is the necessity for integrated infrastructure planning with housing at the urban scale. Advocating joined-up land use and transport planning might be seen as something of an old chestnut, but the recommendation to formalise devolved city infrastructure budgets on a five-year cycle is not unhelpful in that regard.”

He notes that there are, significantly, “specific recommendations that take the joined-up thinking further, to ultimately help deliver more liveable and sustainable towns and cities. Firstly, in terms of blue-green infrastructure solutions, which, alongside spatial planning, property level measures and traditional grey infrastructure, is advocated as a potentially cost-effective solution to improve the UK’s flood resilience via river catchment and coastal plans. Secondly with the commitment to conduct more detailed analysis on the role of regulatory or other constraints upon utilities in the timely and cost-effective delivery of local infrastructure for new housing. The natural and built environments also feature in the assessment in the guise of environmental net gain and design quality as important principles to be measured as part of the UK infrastructure scorecard – though the details in these areas remain a work in progress.” 

Low cost, low carbon

Chapter two of the assessment is focused on how the UK can decarbonise the way in which it powers and heats homes and deals with waste. Recommending that the government progresses towards zero carbon heat, it very clearly suggests that renewable energy offers a cost-comparable alternative to nuclear, and that a safety case should be established for using hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas.

Paul Bosworth, Senior Consultant in the carbon & energy team feels the assessment is “a welcome approach to evidence-based policymaking and a move in the right direction from government.” He notes that “we advise a variety of large organisations on energy management issues, for many of whom this report could make a clear difference by encouraging the switch to greener ways of providing energy to businesses without increasing bills. 

“The recommendation to set a target of installing 21,000 building energy efficiency measures a week by 2020 is a good one, though it will require considerable investment given it represents a six-fold increase on current levels. 

“With many of our sustainability clients in the real estate sector already exploring the possibilities of on-site energy storage, the committee’s recommendations and analysis of falling battery prices (80% since 2010) will help bolster their business case and the overall eco-efficiency of our UK building stock.”

Within energy supply, the assessment painted a picture of a diminishing role for gas within the electricity and heat sectors. Emily Agus, Senior Engineer in the Power team commented, “clearly a low carbon future drives the energy sector towards renewable forms of electricity generation, such as solar and wind. However, for a secure and stable supply there also needs to be sufficient reserve capacity alongside system frequency services (such as inertia and frequency response).  

“The report makes limited reference to other sources of ‘electricity sector’ information, such as (but not limited to) National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios (where information is referenced in relation to the uptake of electric vehicles, rather than projected future energy mixes), and the mechanisms for ensuring security of electricity supply in the UK, such as the Capacity Market.  

“The updated Future Energy Scenarios (also published July 2018) notes that (emphasis added): “Our new scenarios highlight some important themes and future developments. For example, gas will remain crucial for both heating and electricity generation in all scenarios for the coming decades. There will be a significant increase in electricity infrastructure, from new renewable generation to electric vehicle charging networks. And the decarbonisation of heating will be challenging, with multiple ways to achieve it – requiring both electricity and different types of gas”.  

“As long as gas-fired power plants comply with environmental legislation and are based on best available techniques (BAT), they are fully able to contribute to a low carbon electricity generation mix, and one which provides allowance for an increasing proportion of renewable generation whilst also remaining adequate, secure and stable for the UK’s needs.”

Revolutionising road transport

Chapter three looks at ways the UK can prepare for the growth of electric and autonomous vehicles. It recommends that charging infrastructure sufficient to allow consumer demand to reach close to 100% electric new car and van sales should be rolled out by 2030, highlighting the need for technological innovation in long-term transport planning.

Bram Miller, Director of Sustainability said “It’s encouraging to see the assessment placing strong focus on readiness for electric, autonomous and connected vehicles. Hopefully this report and its recommendations can provide the necessary catalyst to rapidly accelerate the conversion of the UK’s vehicle fleet – without which the roads sector cannot make its contribution to carbon reduction targets nor address its air quality impacts.” 

Adam Selvey, Design Director in Building Services, was also pleased with the inclusion of electric autonomous vehicles and commented earlier this week that “we now need to start planning electricity charging infrastructure to meet relatively undefined needs 20 years from now. We need to re-frame our thinking about electrical distribution points, and we need to start doing it today.”

On a broader note, Bram also highlighted his pleasure at the strong emphasis on design quality as well as on a broader, more holistic approach to project appraisal and measuring the performance of infrastructure, including the implications on natural capital.

Reducing the risks of drought and flooding

Chapter six looks at ways the UK can build resilience to the effects of climate change, which it notes will make extreme weather events more likely in the future. Recommendations focus on the need to improve resilience to flooding and reduce supply and demand of water.

Chris Day, Senior Consultant in the water team feels that “the report raises the concern that there is no clear long-term objective for the level of flood resilience that the government is seeking to achieve”. He feels “it is suggested that the previous cost-benefit analysis approach to decisions about capital investment in flood risk management (an assessment of whether it is ‘worth’ protecting particular homes and commercial properties) is not a sustainable basis for decision-making.”

Chris also has concerns about the ambiguity of some of the recommendations, saying “the commission has proposed a national standard so that by 2050 communities will be resilient to flooding 99.5% of the time wherever feasible. This is also expressed as a judgement that all properties, wherever feasible, should be resilient to severe flooding, with a 0.5 % annual probability, by 2050. It is also suggested that a higher standard of 0.1% should be provided for densely populated areas where the resulting costs per household would be lower.

“Ramboll’s experience is that flood defence assets in many areas currently offer a significantly lower standard of protection, and upgrades to traditional defence assets to offer protection against a 0.5% or 0.1% annual probability event may neither be affordable nor technically feasible. Therefore, as is recognised by the commission, the proposed national standard may necessitate a move towards a combination of measures including green and grey infrastructure, greater spatial planning and property level measures.”

Chris continues, “we note the recommendation that the Ministry of Housing, communities, local government and planning authorities should ensure that from 2019 all new development is resilient to flooding with an annual likelihood of 0.5% for its lifetime without increasing risk elsewhere. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and government guidance on flood risk and coastal change currently uses a 1% annual probability event as a threshold for management of fluvial flood risks and it is this annual probability event that is used within the majority of hydraulic modelling studies in England and Wales. Therefore, were these recommendations to be adopted, significant changes to Environment Agency flood mapping and the approach to flood risk assessment may be required.”

To view the National Infrastructure Assessment in full, click here

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