The government has confirmed it will present a one-year Spending Review to Parliament on 25 November 2020, deferring the Budget and consideration of departmental spending plans until the economic and fiscal consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are clearer.
A new Energy White Paper and National Infrastructure Strategy, originally expected to be published in March 2020, have been in the pipeline for months while wider measures designed to put the UK on track to meet its medium and long term emissions goal of net zero by 2050 are also awaited.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was established as far back as 2015 to provide independent, expert advice on the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs. In July 2018, the NIC published its National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) to which the government published an interim response later that year with a promise to formally respond before publishing a comprehensive National Infrastructure Strategy.
HM Treasury has indicated that further details on how the government plans to meet its 2050 net zero target would be set out in the Spending Review later this month, with the government's full Net Zero Review assessing the costs of decarbonisation earmarked for Spring 2021.
The Prime Minister is also expected to unveil his much anticipated 10-point green recovery plan in the next few weeks, with support for nuclear power, offshore wind, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen all thought to feature. It is hoped that any such medium-term support will align with any proposed National Infrastructure Strategy, although it remains to be seen when that detailed policy document may emerge.
Meanwhile, many campaigners remain concerned over whether or not the government will support the interim plans or the long-term strategy with ambitious spending commitments to accelerate the roll out of green infrastructure. The Green Alliance (an independent think tank and charity lobbying influential leaders in business and politics to promote green policies since 1979) suggests that such an infrastructure strategy is urgently needed to facilitate a robust, green recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specifically, the Green Alliance points to a £11.4bn gap in investment in net zero infrastructure during the current financial year alone across transport, buildings, the circular economy (product reuse and recycling) and natural infrastructure such as trees, peatland, and other habitats which can perform as carbon dioxide sinks.
It is clear however that the importance of investment in physical infrastructure needs to be matched by investment in financial infrastructure and soft infrastructure – the skills needed to bring infrastructure plans to life and to make changes to policy. Recognising the importance of regional input and local insight to identify, finance and deliver regional infrastructure requirements would transform theory into practice.
The pandemic has shown that local plans for local people delivered under the umbrella of a national strategy is proving very effective and has to be the right direction of travel. Given the significant level of investment that needs to be put into transport, perhaps the classical approach to such projects, where decision-making is kept entirely within public authorities or private firms, presenting strategy as a fait accompli, needs to become more democratised so that citizens, advisers, professionals and campaigners can help create pathways to net zero and green jobs in conjunction with local authority planners.
For the moment there is obviously an immediate need for additional, emergency, responses to the pandemic but without a long-term plan, ‘building back greener’ becomes more difficult. Billions of pounds have been committed to green investment, including greener homes, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, walking and cycling infrastructure, flood defences and offshore wind. But the fact remains that Treasury announcements in late November may very well not include the National Infrastructure Strategy and the Green Book revisions needed to encourage much greater levels of investment outside of London and the South East. We can only hope that the final publication of such a roadmap is not too far off.