As the National Infrastructure Commission begins work on its next assessment of the UK’s future needs, chief executive James Heath talks to Richard Johnstone about taking a long-term perspective, the impact of Covid, and monitoring government commitments
As befits the chief executive of the National Infrastructure Commission, James Heath uses a transport analogy to describe the feeling of being named the head of the agency in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s been really challenging to come into new organisation as chief executive and run it over Zoom,” he says. “If starting a new job is getting from nought to 70 miles per hour, then I prob ably got to about 50 miles per hour at about the same speed as you would under normal conditions, but getting to 70 miles per hour is impossible for me without meeting people in real life.”
Heath joined the commission in May 2020, in the depths of the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown, and says it has been difficult to do without the face-to-face contact we once took for granted.
“You build relationships and social capital face-to-face with people, and then you spend it online. But you’ve got to have it to begin with,” he says.
The result is that the commission is now developing a hybrid working model, with a mix of working from home and the office, in an effort to keep the benefits and flexibility of remote working as well as building those relationships.
“I think the key point is that we just don’t know the answers to how these type of hybrid models will work,” he adds. “So it’s really important for me that we trial these new models, and we test them to see what works and what doesn’t before we settle on the longer term pattern.”
This encapsulates a challenge that is faced by many government departments as they move away from the emergency pandemic response – and it also neatly summarises the issue faced by the NIC as it begins to scope out the work of the next National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA). Just how will the country emerge from the pandemic and what does it mean for infrastructure?
The assessment is due for publication in autumn 2023, and the scoping work has begun, with a baseline assessment giving what Heath describes as a “where we are today picture of infrastructure”, to be published later this autumn.
The commission covers a range of sectors and areas when looking at the UK’s infrastructure needs – energy, transport, water and wastewter (drainage and sewerage), waste, flood risk management and digital communications. In each, it will be looking at performance, quality, cost, investment and resilience.
“We’ll do a baseline assessment, then we’ll look at what we see as the big drivers of future infrastructure demand and supply, which is where we’ll get into Covid, and the extent to which the changes we’ve seen around transport use and [visits to] city centres will be permanent or temporary,” Heath says. “That will be where we will paint some scenarios for future infrastructure.”
However, at the moment, Heath says that “we just don’t know what the long term consequences are going to be”, which is why the assessment process is important.
“There’s significant uncertainty, but you can’t just down tools and stop thinking. You’ve got to try and design policy in an adaptive way where you keep your options open, and you move forward in stages, trying to understand where the data is going. Because you’re not designing infrastructure policy for the next year, we’re designing infrastructure policy for the next 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years.”
Heath adds that the pandemic has made work in two particular policy areas – the move towards net zero, and the aim to level up the country – all the more important.
Holding the government to account for the pledges they have made in these key policy areas is part of what Heath describes as the commission’s three key functions. The first two functions, he says, are setting the long-term agenda on infrastructure investment, and providing an independent perspective to the debate.
“The third is definitely to monitor government progress so that when government say they are going to do things in the infrastructure space, and when they accept one of our recommendations, we actually hold them to account on delivery.”
Reaching the government’s target to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and prime minister Boris John son’s pledge to level up the country and better spread economic opportunity are two areas where the commission will be closely monitoring progress towards delivery.
“On net zero, we’ve seen some quite ambitious goals from government in terms of renewable energy, electrical vehicle charging and ending sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030,” Heath says.
“But the big challenge now is to turn those policy goals into delivery plans with clear milestones. That is the zone for challenge that we are focusing on: how you turn the aspirations into reality.”
Likewise on the prominent pledges to level up the country, Heath says the NIC has already “quite directly challenged government” on the policy prescriptions that likely flow from that. The commission called for greater devolution to city leaders in both its first National Infrastructure Assessment and subsequent annual monitoring reports.
“If you want to solve some of these big questions about changing economic geography and levelling up, then there must be more significant devolution of power, responsibility and funding within England – to mayoral authorities and to local authorities,” he says. “That’s where the information and understand ing lies about how to fix some of these problems. That’s something we will continue to push the government on.”
Defining what levelling up means – and the policy prescriptions that follow – is one of the tasks for the commission in the next national infrastructure assessment.
“Properly defining what this means is clearly a challenge,” he says. “I think there is a danger that if you have a fairly vague concept, that can confuse policy and prevent us from knowing what a good outcome looks like.”
A key step to making recommendations will be determining “the right geographic dimension” for levelling up, he says.
“Is this about urban challenges, and the fact that the productivity rates of our big cities are below the UK average and significantly behind London? Or is the big issue about the balance between towns and cities, or between urban and rural?
“I think you’ve got to be clear about the problem. Is it [just] about produc tivity and growth? Or is the problem about productivity and growth, but also about the quality of life and wellbeing questions. I think it is probably about making places more productive and more liveable, not just economics.
“And then you’ve got to think about what is infrastructure’s role in sorting out some of these problems. And I think infrastructure is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. As influential as infrastructure will be skills policy and education policy. We’ve got to think about infrastructure in that context, rather than seeing it as a silver bullet.”
Heath describes the role of chief executive of the commission as a three-headed challenge – leading the standing secretariat of the commission; acting as the chief adviser to the eight-strong commission, chaired by Sir John Armitt; and promoting its work in various policy debates.
Before joining the NIC Heath was director of digital infrastructure at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and he says he was attracted by the idea of “more time and space to think about how you solve problems with a slightly longer-term perspective”.
However, he says adjusting from the more reactive world of day-to day implementation in the civil ser vice was “actually quite difficult”.
“For the first few months here, [I was] sort of chasing the latest policy debate in Whitehall and working out how could the commission help, where actually our role is to take a longer-term perspective,” he says. “It took me at least three or four months to decompress and take a slightly different perspective.”
The commission is technically an executive agency of the Treasury, but Heath says “we are very in dependent in the work we do”. This will be demonstrated by the process around the second NIA. This engagement will include working with Whitehall, because “we want to understand what the thinking is on transport and energy and water in different government departments”, but the assessment itself will be the commission’s own.
“We decide what areas we’re going to look at and we decide what our recommendations are,” he says.
“I think government departments absolutely recognise our separate role. In my first year here, I’ve seen that respect for independence.”
The first NIA was published in July 2018, providing for the first time evidence based and forward thinking independent advice on infrastructure strategy. Speaking at the time, Armitt said that it was “not some unaffordable wish-list of projects” but instead set “a clear direction for how to meet the country’s future infrastructure needs and [made] a realistic assessment of what can and should be delivered within the stated aim of ministers for steady and continued investment over the coming years”.
The government provided an in-depth response to the recommendations in November last year, publishing the first ever National Infrastructure Strategy and creating the UK Infrastructure Bank to finance projects.
Heath says the commission was “pleased to see that a significant number of our recommendations from the first National Infrastructure Assessment were endorsed by government”.
He adds: “Some of the big ideas flowed from the work we’d done. One example is the set ting up of the UK Infrastructure Bank, which was based on our recommendation. The decision to bring forward the date for phasing out petrol cars and vans to 2030 was informed by our thinking, as was placing a bigger strategic bet on hydrogen. Pushing renewable energy hard was also based on our thinking – though obviously, on that last one, not just our thinking, but we made a significant contribution.”
Overall, he says there’s “quite an alignment between government and the commission in the key policy areas”, but reiterates the “significant further work to be done in turning policy aspiration into action”.
Given his previous role, how does he think the commission is viewed in government and how did he engage with it at DCMS? “We took seriously what the commission said in the strategy published on fibre [broadband], which was six months before the government strategy on fibre, and there’s a lot of commonality,” he says. “We would take note if the commission was either privately or publicly expressing concern about the delivery of that strategy.”
The commission also carries out ad hoc work for government, with recent studies covering infrastructure in towns and technology that could remove carbon dioxide from the air. This indicates the scale and the breadth of the projects that the commission is involved in, and its important role in the UK policy debate.
“We have the ability to take the time to think about how you solve problems with a slightly longer term perspective,” says Heath. “Our role is to see challenges coming, and advise government on how to plan rationally to deal with them. That’s a different mindset to firefighting and solving lots of short-term challenges, which is inevitably part of the job in government.”