Whatever happened to NICW?

Some time ago the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Infrastructure and Skills, launched a Welsh Government consultation on the shape and purpose of a new National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Wales Cymru, examines why, despite the lack of progress since that time, the need for a free-thinking and independent commission is stronger than ever.

We keep getting told that we have great economic opportunities ahead of us in Wales. Words such as regeneration, catalyst, transformation, etc, are bandied about on a daily basis as are City Deals, Growth Deals, City Regions, etc. Not a day goes by without mention of another major project, just over the horizon, which, if we get it right, will take us to Nirvana. Or, as we look to the horizon, does this become yet another mirage, always very slightly out of our grasp? What we know as an industry is that we’ll only improve our prosperity through infrastructure fit for the 21st Century and this means taking a far more integrated, connected and long-term view of our infrastructure needs with decisions directly linked to economic growth and supporting social and environmental wellbeing as set out in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. What flows from this is clarity and certainty of the projects we need, the returns we should expect, the investment needed to fund them and the skills and resources we need to deliver. This is what will make a massive difference to the future prospects of our communities and this is why we believe a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales can and should deliver. So, where is it?

We’ve been through the campaigning bit to get political consensus, we’ve inputted to the Welsh Government’s consultation on the shape of a Commission and the excellent report of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee report and we’ve received the Government’s response back in January. But since then it’s been very quiet with only a suggestion that adverts will be placed for a Chairperson in the Autumn. This lull has been unhelpful but as an industry we remain positive and supportive and so here are a few thoughts on priorities for the Commission when it finally gets going.

Let’s be clear from the outset, a Commission must not have a sole focus on transport or whatever conveniently sits in departmental portfolios. It needs to maintain a broad focus to support economic development and wellbeing :

Energy: it needs to propose how infrastructure can support Wales in becoming a zero carbon nation (or even carbon negative to give others some headroom!). Tidal lagoons and community energy schemes spring to mind but let’s not be constrained by current technology and if we need to push the “non-devolved” boundaries then let’s do so.

Resilience to flooding and rising sea levels: this can take many forms and shouldn’t be just about building more defences. We need to tie these decisions into the National Development Framework, we need to consider how our uplands can reduce downstream flooding and we need to look at how support to farming communities can help to adapt land management practices.

Water resources and quality: let’s consider the value of this resource both within Wales and as export potential (a can of worms I know but let’s have the discussion) and let’s manage this at source rather than “at the end of the pipe”!

Transport: we need to join up infrastructure decisions both within Wales and across borders with England, Ireland and beyond, whether it be by road, rail, air or sea.

Wales needs a Commission to focus on what is needed to support economic growth. It needs to set out a clear vision for the future, across the whole of Wales, connecting individual projects to a much wider infrastructure strategy, so that decision makers, funders and the people of Wales have clarity on the social, environmental and economic benefits that new infrastructure brings. And this needs to be viewed in the context of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

For the Commission to have credibility and purpose it also needs to be tasked with the role of identifying the investment needed to fund these projects. We shouldn’t constrain ourselves to existing and, sadly, dwindling public sector resources. The Commission needs to be ambitious and should actively consider innovative funding mechanisms to bring forward infrastructure projects which can make a positive difference to our economy. And, whilst we welcome that the Cabinet Secretary has stated that the Commission should be up and running within the next 12 months, Wales cannot afford to, and shouldn’t have to, wait any longer for projects which we know will improve our economy now.

Why is this so important, not just to those working in the sector but to the broader economy? Clarity and certainty are essential for the businesses which grow our economy and yet the delivery of infrastructure, not just in Wales but across the UK, is characterised by exactly the opposite – uncertainty and a lack of clarity. We know from recent studies that delays to infrastructure projects and indecision cost our economy dearly – almost £50,000 per minute on transport projects alone. This undermines business confidence to invest. A strong Commission can and must address this.

Finally, and crucially, the Commission needs to set out clearly the skills and resources needed to deliver this joined up programme of infrastructure projects. This will allow employers, training providers and education establishments to confidently invest in recruiting, training and upskilling the people we need. CITB Cymru estimates that we will need over 5,000 people per annum to deliver our current aspirations and this figure will only increase if the Commission identifies the reality of what we need in Wales. Whilst this is certainly a challenge it offers great opportunities. These are high value, long term jobs that could not only transform our economy but breathe prosperity into those communities that are in greatest need of regeneration. We know that every £1 spent on infrastructure projects directly boosts GDP by £1.30 with indirect effects up to £2.84 per pound spent. So the multiplier effect is enormous. But the preparatory work needs to be happening now to ensure that the significant numbers of highly skilled workers needed are available in Wales, and stay in Wales. The lack of high quality apprenticeships in Wales at present is of great concern to the construction industry. The Welsh Government commitment to creating 100,000 high-quality, all age apprenticeships is of course welcomed as is the confirmation by the Regional Skills and Innovation Partnerships of the industry’s position as a Priority Sector. However, questions remain on the introduction of the UK Government’s Apprenticeship Levy and the consequent impact here in Wales. We need certainty on these matters as quickly as possible and we need to have the confidence to start gearing up.

A lot of work has been done and much energy expended to get to this stage and we now need to see action taken to formally establish the Commission with the appointment of an influential and forward-thinking Chair supported by challenging and capable board members. The lull that we’ve experienced, possibly as a result of Brexit and a General Election, hasn’t been helpful but we now need to kick-on with some action. The Commission needs to hit the ground running and that’s why I would offer an open invitation to others across Wales, from all sectors, to join in a national conversation on what we think the Commission’s priorities should be. Maybe then we can start to build a more prosperous Wales.