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Window closing to rectify significant deficiencies in trains, recycling, and bills, advisers warn

The window is closing to tackle public transport, bills and pollution in order to boost growth, improve lives and tackle climate change, the government’s official infrastructure adviser has warned.

With much of British infrastructure ageing, decisions in the next five years will be critical in shaping the cheaper, greener and more secure future the public wants, the National Infrastructure Commission said in its annual review.

It recognised progress in some areas, but criticised “significant deficiencies” in the UK’s infrastructure, including a failure to build reservoirs, too many homes being at risk of flooding, and under-investment in regional transport.

It said people’s quality of life and productivity are suffering as a result.

The damning report called progress on infrastructure in the last year had been “mixed”.

The NIC found:

  • Bills are unnecessarily high due to a failure to unblock “cheap” onshore wind
  • Good progress made on devolution and gigabit broadband
  • “Reversed progress” on heat pumps, meaning missed target and extra fossil fuel emissions
  • Scrapping northern leg of HS2, without alternative plan, will stunt economic growth
  • Under-investment in regional transport systems affecting living standards
  • Failure to build a new reservoir for the last 30 years has increased drought risk
  • Risk of homes flooding is “worsening due to poor planning”
  • EV chargepoint rollout on track
  • Watering down electric vehicle mandate fuelled uncertainty
  • Recycling rates have stalled for more than a decade.

The commission acknowledged upgrades had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and cost of living crisis, and said other countries were in a similar position.

But it urged the government to speed up decisions and public investment, and ensure stable policy to attract private money – after the government’s attacks on net zero were criticised for deterring investment.

The commission also said government had to make decisions faster and commit long-term.

NIC chair Sir John Armitt said: “A window remains to ensure that practical delivery plans are in place, backed up by the necessary public and private funding, to help achieve economic and environmental goals that will improve life for British households.

“But the window is closing, at least if we don’t want to delay those benefits and compound the disruption of recent years.”

Decisions needed for ‘transformational change’

The commission said there are still unacceptably high levels of water pollution, and investment decisions are needed to enable “transformational change” in the sector – that would require some bill increases – to address sewage and drainage problems.

Some of the infrastructure would help the UK to adapt to a changing climate, such as the chances of increased flooding or drought.

Jordan Cummins, from business group CBI, said: “Investment in physical and digital infrastructure, as well as improving connectivity within and between our key economic centres, is a critical enabler of economic activity.”

‘Give firms the confidence they need’

He also called for a “Net Zero Investment Plan” to give businesses more certainty would also provide certainty of pipeline over the mid-term, giving firms the confidence they need to source essential finance and unleash large-scale investment that can transform the UK economy.”

A government spokesperson said: “We’re making sure we have the infrastructure we need to grow the economy, improve people’s lives, and tackle climate change – having already increased electricity generated from renewable sources to nearly half in 2023, giving more powers to cities to build the transport they need, and providing billions to tackle potholes up and down the country.

“And we’re building on this by setting out our long-term plan for transport through our £36bn Network North plan, while putting billions more investment into the low carbon transition, including through our Boiler Upgrade Scheme – which is one of the most generous in Europe.”

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