Where is our infrastructure heading?

Ahead of the Welsh Government establishing its National Infrastructure Commission for Wales, Ed Evans takes a look at what’s happening at a UK level and what – or if – Wales has anything to learn and gain from these developments

This is the first in a series of pieces to be published in the coming weeks exploring infrastructure priorities in Wales, guest edited by Ed Evans. 


CECA Wales (The Civil Engineering Contractors Association) campaigned long and hard, along with a number of our infrastructure partners, for the establishment of a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) and, following the recent appointment of John Lloyd Jones as Chair of the Commission, the process is underway to appoint its first Commissioners. Hopefully, these will soon be in place so that the work of the Commission can get underway.


However, as well as focusing on the needs of Wales the Commission must look beyond our borders to see what’s happening elsewhere, to align, where appropriate, with what’s being planned in England, Scotland and Ireland, and to take a broader view of global developments. So, it’s worth us taking a look at two recent UK infrastructure related announcements:

  • the Construction Sector Deal, and
  • the UK National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) led National Infrastructure Assessment 2018.


The Construction Sector Deal recognises that construction is vital for economic growth, job creation and improving our communities and building on this, the UK Government and industry have come together to attempt to address the long-standing productivity challenges of our sector. Both are committing to a series of actions (and monies) to support our sector and the expectation is that these will be delivered in partnership. The aim is that the Deal will transform our sector, addressing procurement challenges, developing new technologies and investing in our future skills and CECA has worked with the Construction Leadership Council and others to support this development.


In summary the Deal focuses on innovation, people, infrastructure, places, sustainable business models including fair payment and performance benchmarks for asset management. Much of what is in the Deal is equally applicable to Wales as it is at a UK level and perhaps there’s an opportunity to align the “UK Construction Deal” with the Welsh Government’s Economic Action Plan and Employability Plan in the context of the construction sector. This would recognise the considerable value that the Welsh construction sector brings to the Welsh economy. But that’s a topic in itself which I’ll save for another (maybe rainy) day! Hopefully, though, the work of NICW will take account of all of this.


The UK NIC, however, has a part UK, part England focus depending on what is and isn’t devolved. It has published its National Infrastructure Assessment 2018, which sets out the Commission’s plan of action for the UK/England’s infrastructure over the next 10-30 years. The Commission is required to carry out an overall assessment of the UK/England’s infrastructure requirements every five years and this is the first of those assessments. It covers all the key sectors of economic infrastructure, setting out recommendations for transport, energy, water and waste water, flood resilience, digital connectivity, and solid waste, from now until 2050. And the UK NIC’s key recommendations from its National Infrastructure Assessment include:


  • nationwide full-fibre broadband to be achieved by 2033
  • half of the UK’s power to be provided by renewables by 2030
  • £43 billion of stable long-term transport funding for regional cities
  • preparing for 100 per cent electric vehicles sales by 2030
  • ensuring resilience to extreme drought
  • a national standard of flood resilience for all communities by 2050.


From a Welsh perspective it’s not so clear cut and the Assessment needs a little unpicking to see what’s relevant to Wales and whether or not it supports our own aspirations! So, here’s a few thoughts on the UK/England perspective vs Wales.


Building a digital society


Full-fibre connectivity is recommended by 2033 at the latest. Very commendable but how do we achieve this in rural Wales? In fact, how much attention is really given to rural communities in this whole Assessment? Businesses in rural areas continue to suffer unacceptably poor connectivity which makes running a successful small business all the more difficult and makes a mockery of our aspirations for “prosperity for all”.


Low cost, low carbon energy


Half of the UK’s energy mix is to be delivered via renewables by 2030. Highly laudable but given a lack of UK Government support for the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon and the cancelation of electrification to Swansea (and who knows for mid and north Wales!) it doesn’t bode well. And does it mean wind power as the only “viable” renewable that the UK Government will support? It’s also recommended delaying government support for more than one nuclear power station beyond Hinkley Point C before 2025. So, what about Wylfa Newydd?!


Transport and housing for City Regions


It’s difficult to argue with investing in the City Regions but again, where does that leave our rural communities of which we have many in Wales. Hopefully, Wales’ Infrastructure Commission will want to address this? Added impetus for a mid Wales Growth Deal maybe? And what about the role of the National Development Framework for Wales versus individual Local Development Plans at a local authority scale? Joining up transport and housing needs to happen regionally but it’s difficult to see much progress to date on the joining up of these issues for the north, southeast and southwest City/Growth Deals.


100% electric vehicles by 2030


And possibly all of these being automated/driverless? Unfortunately, Wales’ trains are unlikely to meet this given the UK Government’s cancelation of electrification to Swansea! But in terms of cars, we’re way behind on electric charging points which is not helped by the inadequacies of the National Grid (which is already inhibiting small scale, rural energy generation schemes) particularly in rural Wales. Undoubtedly we will need to consider “made in Wales, for Wales” solutions.


Drought and flood management


The subject of water is always a difficult one in Wales. We have so much of it (ok, maybe not so much at the moment!) that English cities have looked to Wales for their supplies and this has created huge political upheavals not to mention the loss of Welsh communities to large reservoirs. But why shouldn’t we treat it as an exportable resource which should be reflected in our “balance of payments” with the broader UK? And in terms of flood management, whilst the NIC talks about sustainable urban drainage perhaps we could be more ambitious in Wales and manage floods on a catchment basis and pay farmers in upland areas to “hold back the waters” in a more natural way? We could also tie this in to water quality issues by adapting land management practices, supported by payments to land managers for “public goods”, to improve water quality before it enters our reservoirs rather than building expensive water treatment works to treat water in the system. That would mean government departments, within and between Cardiff and Westminster, having to “link up” policy and budgets so that one department “pays” for “benefits” to another. How difficult could that be? Given the “health versus social care” debates, sadly, it may prove too difficult! But perhaps we could do it in Wales? Small country and all that?!


And of course, how do we justify and pay for it all?


It’s good to see a discussion on the merits of private finance and how we value costs and benefits when appraising project viability. The UK Commission makes much reference to private finance as a means of funding the infrastructure we need. In Wales we have the Mutual Investment Model (MIM) but it is clear from the current Finance Minister, Mark Drakeford, that other more cost-effective “public” funding options come first. Inevitably though, once we clearly identify our future infrastructure needs via NICW, it is unlikely that the public purse will meet all our needs so private finance must be in the mix somewhere.


Which brings me, finally, to the way we justify infrastructure spend. Surely we need to revisit our justification models for infrastructure investment if we are to consider social and environmental issues as much as economic ones. And if the UK Government is serious about rebalancing the UK economy away from South East England don’t we have an ideal opportunity to do that with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act taking a more prominent role in our infrastructure discussions in Wales?


I know this has been a bit of a light-hearted canter through some of our infrastructure challenges and I’m sure many people will have their own, and potentially more insightful, views on these issues.


What is clear to me, however, is that we need to have a much broader discussion on what we want our infrastructure to look like in the future, what we want it to do and how we want the industry to perform when delivering it. And we need to have those discussions in a specifically Welsh context, given our specific issues, challenges and aspirations, albeit with a close eye kept on the things, good and bad, happening around us. NICW gives us a platform to do this but it’s important that the whole of Welsh society engages with it to make sure that we all get the “big picture”.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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

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