‘Inaction – as well as action – has costs’: James Heath on the NIC’s message to policymakers

Faster decisions and ambitious goals are what the country needs, the chief executive of the National Infrastructure Commission says
St Clement Danes Church on the Strand in London. Photo: M.Sobreira/Alamy

By CSW staff

20 Dec 2023

Tell us three words that sum up your 2023... 

Pace not perfection 

…And why you chose those words 

It’s not a summary of the NIC’s own performance this year, but our call to policymakers as they develop plans to modernise the United Kingdom’s economic infrastructure. The Commission’s second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA2) was published in October – it’s our five-yearly look at the main infrastructure needs facing the country over the next 30 years and what has to be done to meet them. One of our central conclusions is that government must make faster decisions and ambitious goals must be backed up by policies of sufficient scale to move the dial. There are no perfect solutions and inaction – as well as action – has costs. To meet the stretching carbon targets for 2035, as well as achieve other goals such as rebalancing economic growth, options should be closed down where the risk of delay is greater than the risk of making a suboptimal decision. The switch to electrified heating and the decarbonisation of the electricity grid are cases in point. Twelve years is not a long time in infrastructure terms.  

What are your organisational and personal priorities for 2024?   

The Commission’s focus will be on building consensus around NIA2 as providing a comprehensive, costed, long-term answer to the UK’s hardest infrastructure problems. We’ve proposed bold measures to invest more in intra-city and inter-city transport to grow the economies of England’s largest city regions, and big steps to prepare our energy system for a net-zero future – including supporting households to make the transition from gas boilers to heat pumps for heating. 

Our plan to modernise transport, energy, water and digital networks will require sustained levels of public investment over the next 20 years, but crucially also significant increases in private investment. Securing this investment in the face of international competition will mean reform of the planning system for infrastructure projects, greater policy certainty and regulatory change. But it’s achievable. The UK has made major changes to infrastructure before – from building the electricity “supergrid” in the 1950s to constructing the strategic road network in the 1960s and 70s – and we can do so again. 

Personally, leading the organisation through an inevitable period of staff change post NIA2 and an impending office move will consume a lot of energy during 2024. 

What’s your favourite festive treat, and what makes you say: ‘Bah, humbug’?  

My treat is joining the concert at St Clement Danes Church on the Strand in central London. Though I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Christmas carols, I go every year because I love the atmosphere, the church and it signals the beginning of the festive season for me. My inner Scrooge emerges when faced with endless repeats of dated shows on the main TV channels. Netflix and podcasts were invented to alleviate this pain! 

This is part of CSW's annual perm secs roundup. Read all the entries to the 2023 roundup here

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