Just when we thought the big reveal was almost here, the National Infrastructure Strategy has been delayed once more.
Only a few hours before news that the plan would no longer accompany the Budget, the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission had been on stage at Utility Week’s Investor Summit in the City.
The man with probably the best understanding in the country of the nation’s critical infrastructure needs hadn’t sounded too convinced when I asked if we’d finally get to see the vision this week.
Instead, Sir John Armitt, who outlined a raft of recommendations to government in the Commission’s 2018 National Infrastructure Assessment, admitted: “Will I be that surprised if it were to be put back a bit? Probably not.”
As we now know, we don’t expect to see the detailed spending plan from the Treasury until May. It was news that caused widespread frustration among Utility Week sources this week, long hoping to hear precisely how the £100 billion earmarked for UK infrastructure investment will be used.
Having a clear roadmap, and soon, is vital for energy and water companies with a central role to play in helping government “level up” the country through transport and digital infrastructure.
Already, thanks to interminable Brexit wranglings and a general election, the Energy White Paper continues to elude a business sector desperate for clarity – although there are now hopes it should emerge this month.
But there has also been industry recognition that, after less than a month in the job – and with an escalating national Coronavirus emergency – it is right that new chancellor Rishi Sunak gets his own opportunity and time to set out the nation’s investment strategy for achieving net zero by 2050.
And of course, the government’s recent U-turn on onshore wind has already appeased many utility voices – in hindsight an expertly timed move.
But the clock is still ticking.
As industry ambitions grow to meet carbon-neutral targets earlier, including water’s goal for zero emissions by 2030, the “decisive, coherent action” in 2020 called for by Armitt is crucial.
Two years on, his foreword in the Commission’s report now makes timely reading. Highlighting how over the past 50 years the UK has seen an “endless cycle of delays, prevarication and uncertainty”, it says the absence of “a cross-sectoral approach to infrastructure” limits growth, undermines job certainty and restricts innovation.
As it rightly warns: “This will not do for the challenges ahead.”
Suzanne Heneghan, editor, Utility Week magazine, email@example.com