Infrastructure is a critical long-term societal investment that can make Northern Ireland a more efficient, better functioning society and boost economic growth. It has the ability to improve quality of life and wellbeing by offering good transport links, safe water and sanitation, connectivity, communication, housing and energy. It can address equality of opportunity and poverty issues along with improving environmental quality and reducing emissions.
It is also critical to the functioning of the business and wider economy, boosting productivity and competitiveness, supporting business and trade development and in simple terms making it easier to do business locally, nationally and internationally. Good quality infrastructure is also a critical component of the decision making process by both foreign owned and Indigenous business to invest in this region and unlock private sector capital.
However, the current system of infrastructure decision-making and delivery in Northern Ireland is hugely challenging. A Northern Ireland Audit Office report on ‘Major Capital Projects’ published in December 2019, highlighted that each of the projects examined suffered time delays and/or cost overruns when compared against original timescales and budgets. This was put down to issues such as planning, funding constraints and legal challenges.
It is also fair to say that there is a lack of joined up thinking around infrastructure investment and the need for consensus/planning on how one part of infrastructure investment ‘fits’ with other parts of the economy. This is perhaps best reflected in the current infrastructure crisis within Northern Ireland Water where housing/business investment is being approved without the funding available to connect to the sewage system, a basic need of any infrastructure investment.
And as we look ahead, there are a significant number of emerging factors that will influence infrastructure needs and demand over the longer term.
The first of these is around technological change, which will be a key influence on changing needs and demands for infrastructure over time. The significant push on digital infrastructure and investment in broadband as a result of the lock down imposed by COVID-19, has highlighted the importance of digital infrastructure not just in terms of download speeds and productivity but also in terms of remote access to healthcare, education, travel and transport and well-being.
Secondly, the UK government’s Net Zero Carbon target (2050) has significant implications for infrastructure development going forward. This includes decarbonising the power sector, heating buildings and providing energy more efficiently, decarbonising surface transport (HGVs and cars for example) and reducing waste emissions.
‘Place Making’ is also key to future investment decisions – the need to make/create quality places that people want to live, work, play and learn in. This involves stakeholder collaboration around environmental, social and economic sustainability in the development of urban and rural areas, with a strong focus on the infrastructure needed to make places work for people’s needs.
Then there is Population Change. What will be the implications of an aging population on infrastructure demands going forward in terms of transport access, housing, health and energy consumption?
And finally, there is significant potential to synergise some aspects of infrastructure delivery on the basis of agreement between the NI Executive and Irish government. The granting of planning permission for the North South Interconnector last week is extremely welcome, and there are also other existing and potential All-Island projects around planning and transport for example.
So how can we address these opportunities? Last month Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon set up a Ministerial Advisory Panel to assist her in delivering “cleaner, greener, sustainable and inclusive infrastructure.” The panel’s role is also to consider how an Infrastructure Commission for Northern Ireland might support more effectively the long term planning and development of relevant infrastructure across the island of Ireland. This is something that NI Chamber believes could address current challenges and maximise the potential that the above factors provide.
The Infrastructure Commission should have at the centre of its focus the delivery of hard infrastructure (water & waste, drainage and inland waterways, public transport, roads and cycling infrastructure), including aviation, digital infrastructure and energy infrastructure as well.
If adequately resourced, the commission could provide independent thinking; a wider, more strategic perspective; improved accountability and better value for money in project delivery. It should be independent from Government and responsible to the First & Deputy First Minister.
NI Chamber strongly believes that infrastructure will play a critical part in how Northern Ireland as a region will recover from the fall out of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with the focus on a green, sustainable recovery. It will also have an important role to play in how Northern Ireland remains connected to both Great Britain and international markets/economies after the transition period of the UK’s exit from the EU ends on the 31 December 2020. We look forward to hearing more about the panel’s work over the coming months.