The King’s Speech: Infra commitments are vague and uncertain

Blog: The UK government’s programme for the next parliamentary session has little to get the infrastructure industry excited - unless you’re into oil and gas extraction

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The first King’s Speech for over 70 years was, perhaps unsurprisingly, short on long-term plans for the infrastructure community.

Despite coming just weeks after the National Infrastructure Commission laid out what it believes the government needs to be doing over the next 30 years, this programme for parliamentary business had very little to do with infrastructure.

Given a General Election is due to be held sometime before the end of next year - and quite possibly before this current parliamentary session gets near its end - it should perhaps not be surprising that a government that is widely predicted to lose that election has been so light on long-term plans.

However, the inertia is far from helpful. 

Take a look at the plans for the energy sector: the only real piece of legislation purportedly addressing the energy transition and the ambition to hit its Net Zero targets is the offshore petroleum licensing bill - a measure that will increase the ability to extract oil and gas, rather than bring new investment into renewables and other green energy sources such as hydrogen and nuclear.

The speech added, almost as an afterthought: “Alongside this, my ministers will seek to attract record levels of investment in renewable energy sources and reform grid connections.”

That, though, is the last we hear of these efforts to improve grid connections - despite the fact that nearly everyone connected with the energy transition industry at present is bemoaning the need for major reform to the Grid (we’ll be publishing something more comprehensive on this in the coming weeks).

Indeed, in the speech and its accompanying briefing notes, ‘infrastructure’ is mentioned just four times, while ‘renewable’ in relation to energy is mentioned only five times. Planning - often seen as another area that needs significant reform - doesn’t get a look-in.

The one area where there is a greater focus on infrastructure is the promised draft rail reform bill.

However, as has already been pointed out by experts in the industry, the fact that this is a draft bill means it is unlikely to become legislation before the end of this parliament. This is a bill whose genesis is in the Wiliams-Shapps plan, published in May 2021. The briefing notes talk about the impact of Covid-19 and how reform is needed to cope with changes in the way the rail network is used, but those changes have been with us for over three years now, with little prospect of change anytime soon.

In our recent article speaking to the National Infrastructure Commission’s deputy chair, Julia Prescot, she set out why changes are needed to the way the government accounts for and manages major infrastructure projects. In particular, she suggested it would “remove the illusion that delaying projects saves money”.

However, the government currently appears to believe that the best way to move forward is to push everything back. Whether that’s previous announcements on delaying the date to ban the sale of carbon-emitting vehicles, or the current programme for parliament that says so little about how the government will drive future infrastructure investment.

As one source put it in relation to the administration’s lack of progress: “Investors come to the UK because of the clarity of policy and the fact that historically we never take back what we have said we would do. It was what investors could always rely on, but the current government has undermined that perception of clarity of policy.”

Unfortunately, this latest opportunity for a reset appears to have been missed, and will do little to improve the view of the UK in the minds of international investors.