Amid slashed budgets and job losses, the government has attempted to dispel gloom with a shopping list. The national infrastructure plan announced by prime minister David Cameron last week shows how ministers aim to bring forward vital services in an age of austerity.
Planning arrangements will face close scrutiny under these proposals. "To tackle this issue, we will improve the UK planning system, bring down construction costs, improve the quality of data to inform decision-making and initiate programmes to look at cross-sectoral independencies, resilience and engineering innovation," promises the document (Planning, 29 October, p2).
As part of this, the government will create a "common set of planning assumptions" featuring economic and population growth forecasts and the impacts of climate change. The plan affirms that local enterprise partnerships "will provide strategic leadership to set out local economic priorities and will play a pivotal role in helping rebalance the economy towards the private sector".
The plan heralds some imminent announcements with a bearing on infrastructure provision. This month will see publication of the localism bill and ministers' full response to the Penfold review of non-planning consents.
Updated timetables for replacement of the Infrastructure Planning Commission and for publication of the remaining draft national policy statements (NPSs) are promised by the year end.
In the main, the response from the engineering, planning and development industries has been positive - especially if ministers can steer clear of the elasticity that typically adheres to government timetables. Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) chief executive Kate Henderson believes that the plan can play a pivotal role in helping the UK's economic recovery.
"These prescriptions have the potential to ensure that sustainable development is at the heart of UK infrastructure priorities and to tackle environmental and social justice issues as well as economic growth," she says. However, the association is waiting to see how the plan will tie in with NPSs and the long-promised national planning framework in rebalancing England's economy.
"For the first time the government recognises the need for this sort of approach," says CBI director for business environment Neil Bentley.
"With £200 billion of investment needed in energy, transport, digital, water and waste infrastructure in the next five years, there is a need for co-ordination to make the UK as attractive as possible to investors."
Arup fellow Corinne Swain says the plan is "a good start" in bringing together infrastructure issues. However, she argues that the government could give more geographical detail on its plans.
"The draft NPS on nuclear power is the only one that's been given a spatial overlay," she says. "There needs to be a clear timescale for decision-making from the secretary of state at the end of the process, otherwise we will go back a step."
In pursuit of localism, the infrastructure plan will provide more than £1.5 billion for major transport schemes from now until 2014-15. But again Swain feels that the government could go further on the spatial side. "Thought needs to be given to ensure that houses are related to transport capacity," she says.
Whatever the shape of the supporting infrastructure, the Federation of Master Builders emphasises that economic growth is not sustainable without new homes. "The government must show it is serious about investment in housing when there are some five million people in the UK on housing waiting lists," says external affairs director Brian Berry.
It remains to be seen whether this omission becomes a glaring gap. That could become clearer by the end of next year, when Whitehall promises an update of last week's offering. In the meantime, the plan represents a first step in setting out long-term priorities for infrastructure.
The National Infrastructure Plan 2010 is available at www.PlanningResource.co.uk/doc
SERVICES UNDER PRESSURE
- Each year UK roads accommodate an average of 600 car trips per person and 5.2 billion bus trips.
- Two-thirds of freight is moved by road.
- Railways are used by around 24,000 trains each weekday, more than Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Norway combined.
- The national grid comprises 24,800km of high-voltage overhead lines and almost 800,000km of overhead lines and underground cables make up regional distribution networks.
- Waste facilities managed around 134 million tonnes of waste in 2009.
- There are some 297,600km of public sewers in England and Wales.
- The UK has 18.6 million residential broadband connections.