Whatever happened to the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales?

Ed Evans examines why, despite the lack of progress, the need for a free-thinking and independent National Infrastructure Commission is stronger than ever.

We keep getting told that we have great economic opportunities ahead of us in Wales. Words such as regeneration, catalyst, transformation are bandied about on a daily basis. City Deals, Growth Deals, City Regions; not a day goes by without mention of another major project, just over the horizon, which, if we get it right, will take us to Nirvana. Or, as we look to the horizon, does this become yet another mirage, always very slightly out of our grasp?

What we know as an industry is that we’ll only improve our prosperity through infrastructure fit for the 21st Century and this means taking a far more integrated, connected and long term view of our infrastructure needs with decisions directly linked to economic growth and supporting social and environmental wellbeing as set out in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. What flows from this is clarity and certainty of the projects we need, the returns we should expect, the investment needed to fund them and the skills and resources we need to deliver. This is what will make a massive difference to the future prospects of our communities and this is why we believe a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales can and should deliver. So, where is it?

We’ve been through the campaigning bit to get political consensus, we’ve inputted to the Welsh Government’s consultation on the shape of a Commission and the excellent report of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee report and we’ve received the Government’s response back in January. But since then it’s been very quiet with only a suggestion that adverts will be placed for a Chairperson in the Autumn. This lull has been unhelpful but as an industry we remain positive and supportive and so here are a few thoughts on priorities for the Commission when it finally gets going.

Let’s be clear from the outset, a Commission must not have a sole focus on transport or whatever conveniently sits in departmental portfolios. It needs to maintain a broad focus to support economic development and wellbeing.

Energy: It needs to propose how infrastructure can support Wales in becoming a zero carbon nation. Tidal lagoons and community energy schemes spring to mind but let’s not be constrained by current technology and if we need to push the “non-devolved” boundaries then let’s do so.

Resilience to flooding and rising sea levels: this can take many forms and shouldn’t be just about building more defences. We need to tie these decisions into the National Development Framework, we need to consider how our uplands can reduce downstream flooding and we need to look at how support to farming communities can help to adapt land management practices.

Water resources and quality: let’s consider the value of this resource both within Wales and as export potential (a can of worms I know but let’s have the discussion) and let’s manage this at source rather than at the end of the pipe (pun intended).

Transport: We need to join up infrastructure decisions both within Wales and across borders with England, Ireland and beyond, whether it be by road, rail, air or sea.

Wales needs a Commission to focus on what is needed to support economic growth. It needs to set out a clear vision for the future, across the whole of Wales, connecting individual projects to a much wider infrastructure strategy, so that decision makers, funders and the people of Wales have clarity on the social, environmental and economic benefits that new infrastructure brings. And this needs to be viewed in the context of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

For the Commission to have credibility and purpose it also needs to be tasked with the role of identifying the investment needed to fund these projects. We shouldn’t constrain ourselves to existing and, sadly, dwindling public sector resources. The Commission needs to be ambitious and should actively consider innovative funding mechanisms to bring forward infrastructure projects which can make a positive difference to our economy. And, whilst we welcome that the Cabinet Secretary has stated that the Commission should be up and running within the next 12 months, Wales cannot afford to, and shouldn’t have to, wait any longer for projects which we know will improve our economy now.

Why is this so important, not just to those working in the sector but to the broader economy? Clarity and certainty are essential for the businesses which grow our economy and yet the delivery of infrastructure, not just in Wales but across the UK, is characterised by exactly the opposite – uncertainty and a lack of clarity. We know from recent studies that delays to infrastructure projects and indecision cost our economy dearly –  almost £50,000 per minute on transport projects alone. This undermines business confidence to invest. A strong Commission can and must address this.

Finally, and crucially, the Commission needs to set out clearly the skills and resources needed to deliver this joined up programme of infrastructure projects. This will allow employers, training providers and education establishments to confidently invest in recruiting, training and upskilling the people we need. CITB Cymru estimates that we will need over 5,000 people per annum to deliver our current aspirations and this figure will only increase if the Commission identifies the reality of what we need in Wales. Whilst this is certainly a challenge it offers great opportunities. These are high value, long term jobs that could not only transform our economy but breathe prosperity into those communities that are in greatest need of regeneration.

We know that every £1 spent on infrastructure projects directly boosts GDP by £1.30 with indirect effects up to £2.84 per pound spent. So the multiplier effect is enormous. But the preparatory work needs to be happening now to ensure that the significant numbers of highly skilled workers needed are available in Wales, and stay in Wales. The lack of high quality apprenticeships in Wales at present is of great concern to the construction industry. The Welsh Government commitment to creating 100,000 high-quality, all age apprenticeships is of course welcomed as is the confirmation by the Regional Skills and Innovation Partnerships of the industry’s position as a Priority Sector. However, questions remain on the introduction of the UK Government’s Apprenticeship Levy and the consequent impact here in Wales. We need certainty on these matters as quickly as possible and we need to have the confidence to start gearing up.

A lot of work has been done and much energy expended to get to this stage and we now need to see action taken to formally establish the Commission with the appointment of an influential and forward-thinking Chair supported by challenging and capable board members. The lull that we’ve experienced, possibly as a result of Brexit and a General Election, hasn’t been helpful but we now need to kick-on with some action. The Commission needs to hit the ground running and that’s why I would offer an open invitation to others across Wales, from all sectors, to join in a national conversation on what we think the Commission’s priorities should be. Maybe then we can start to build a more prosperous Wales.


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Ed Evans is Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Wales Cymru

8 thoughts on “Whatever happened to the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales?

  1. I applaud this well constructed call for action and collaboration on Welsh infrastructure.

    Please add **Green Infrastructure** – a winning approach for Wales which delivers multiple place-based solutions and a practical way to deliver the Future Generations Act.

  2. The role of the Commission seems so broad, calling for it seems almost like asking for an alternative government. Perhaps that explains the actual government’s hesitation. I am wary of an institutional fix that doesn’t address deeper questions. If the existing Welsh institutions of government seem as ineffective as they do, why will a new institution be any better? How will it avoid the paralysis of competing vested interests? If the issue is people and skills, where will the new, needed people and skills come from? Where are they hiding and for what are they waiting? Welsh civil and political society needs to take a hard look at itself. We have Commissioners for everything now but few hard choices and no grip. If precedent is any guide an infrastructure commission will be set up as an advisory body publishing self-justifying reports that are ignored by politicians afraid to make big decisions but even more afraid of relinquishing perceived control. We need a harder look and tougher debate about our institutions and culture not a cherry stuck on top of a soggy cake that won’t rise.

  3. I think we can all agree that Wales is a world leader in establishing commissions and commissioners. Meanwhile 20 years have past whilst we wait for an answer to the Brynglas tunnel bottleneck. I sometimes wonder whether there is an inverse relationship at work here.

  4. The Brynglas tunnels are a troublesome case that has been high-jacked by those who would have us continue to pursue mid-20th century solutions that we supposedly now recognise as unsustainable and incompatible with the well-being of future generations. The proposed second motorway around Newport is a 1970s answer to a 1960s problem.

    The problems/questions today are (1.) how to reduce traffic (in order to cut pollution in many forms) and (2.) how to avoid chaos when the M4 is blocked.

    With regard to the first problem, the last thing we need is a second motorway; that will just undermine public transport as driving would be made easier and people would switch to motoring. The Cardiff & Newport metro has the potential to reduce traffic in that corner of Wales and, unlike a new motorway, is a 21st century solution and perhaps a sustainable one.

    The second problem is rather more difficult to deal with. It appears that a mishap in the tunnels closes the Brynglas section for longer than accidents elsewhere on the M4, and the diversionary routes are swamped with terrible congestion as a result. What is needed therefore is a system of diversionary routes suitable to handle the traffic if the M4 is closed for a while but done in a way that does not tempt passengers out of buses and trains and into their cars. The suggestion of introducing grade separation at junctions on the A48, to ease the traffic flow without creating huge additional capacity for motorists and at a much lower financial cost than the second motorway (hopefully making money available for public-transport investment), would appear to be the closest anyone has come to achieving that.

  5. Rhydgaled: If the Welsh government can take 18 years not to decide whether or not to build a road – about the simplest bit of infrastructure – how long do you think it will take to build a metro? Moreover if the metro is electric and all the cars are electric what’s the ecological difference? Cars built of lightweight composites and driven by batteries or fuel cells recharged from the electricity grid are no more polluting than trains. Moreover roads can carry buses and differential tolls could encourage public transport. Your reflex anti-roadism seems more 1970s than the M4.

  6. R. Tredwyn, ‘building a metro’ is open-ended as a metro can grow over time. The initial electrification of the full ValleyLines network out to Maesteg, Barry Island etc. however should take 5-10 years, the difficutly is getting the Welsh Government to decide to do that.

    Roads can carry buses yes, but bypasses (and the second M4 around Newport would be a bypass of a bypass) aren’t much use to buses; they have to travel through the town/city in question to pickup and set down passengers (losing time to private cars on the bypass while they do so) or use the bypass and miss out on passengers heading to/from that place.

    Switching to electric doesn’t magicly make cars, or trains for that matter, a zero-pollution mode of transport. Electric cars and electric trains will both still consume energy which will be generated from the same sources. Comparing an electric car to an electric train is therefore similar to comparing a diesel car with a diesel train. A 3-car Turbostar diesel train burns about as much diesel as 20 private cars, but can seat over 140 people so potentially saves quite a lot of fuel. Electric trains will almost certainly have a similar advantage over electric cars; in fact the gap might even widen as an electric car will have to store its engery on-board which will add weight (batteries are heavy) just as diesel vehicles have to lug the weight of fuel around with them. An electric train draws its power from the overhead lines or third rail and thus (the Department for Transport’s class 801 IEP train, with its wasteful diesel engine for emergencies, aside) is unencumbered by heavy on-board energy storage, so will require less energy to move it.

    It isn’t just about emmisions either, since a 40-seat bus carrying for example 20 passengers takes up much less road space than 15 private cars. People walking to and from bus stops will also be a (very small) step towards increasing ‘active travel’, and an electric bus is likely to have a similar advantage in terms of energy efficiency over an electric car.

    If there were plans to introduce tolling, or even high and increasing taxation on fuel for private cars (including electric cars, though at a much lower level than diesel/petrol cars initially) then I might be persuaded to change my stance on road-building but at present there are no such plans. Also, if tolling were introduced the corrosponding reduction in traffic would negate the need to spend on road upgrades anyway (there is already no need for the proposed second motorway as I outlined above).

  7. Rhydgaled. You cite interesting data. Do you know or can you estimate how much extra energy the 801 IEP train or other bimodal will burn relative to a pure electric train on the run from London to Cardiff, with the five intermediate stops? And what would that extra energy imply for carbon emissions?

  8. Sorry Gerald, I cannot recall ever having seen estimated figures for energy use of a 125mph/140mph electric train for the UK. Nobody is going to be able to do better than an estimate because there is no equivalent pure-electric train to compare the diesel-lumbered class 801 with. The West Coast Main Line Pendolinos are complicated by tilt (which adds weight, maybe not as much as a diesel engine and fuel but this still prevents a straight comparison) and the current East Coast Main Line Intercity 225 fleet (IC225s), which will sadly be partially replaced by class 801s, are less powerful than the new trains (Virgin plan to reduce the IC225s from 9 coaches to 7 to improve the power-to-weight ratio so that they can accelerate faster and match the new class 801s).

    The class 801s won’t be coming to Cardiff for some time anyway, if at all, since the Great Western order for 801s (one diesel engine for emergencies) was changed to class 800s (full bi-mode, four or five diesel engines) instead; only Virgin Trains East Coast will be getting class 801s for the time being.

    I did come across a comparison between a 5-car class 800 (three diesel engines) and a 5-car class 801 (one diesel engine) once, but nothing that compared a class 801 with a hypothetical electric version with no diesel engines. The one-engine vs five-engine comparison may have been this one here: http://live.ezezine.com/ezine/archives/759/759-2011. but my recollection is that I saw it in ‘Modern Railways’ magazine some years ago.

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