Infrastructure: never mind the politicians

  • The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland (ICS) wants to shift the focus on to cutting emissions and helping the economy become more inclusive.
  • Its latest report says to achieve this an independent, specialist body should be created by the Scottish government to draw up a 30-year infrastructure plan.
  • But the ICS has recommended against setting up a Scottish National Infrastructure Company, an idea with political support.

Thinking about what Scotland will look like in 30 years time is a tough gig and one, it seems, that should not be entirely trusted to politicians.

The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland (ICS) was created to reach beyond the five-year plans of election cycles, to see what will be required over several decades if the country is to hit its net zero carbon emissions.

This means thinking about energy efficient buildings as well as more and smarter public transport for example.

Instead of using infrastructure to boost growth, its remit was to shift the focus on to cutting emissions and helping the economy become more inclusive of groups that tend to get left behind or not recruited for jobs.

The ICS has issued its final report, saying that the idea of a Scottish National Construction Company would not meet any of its objectives.

That was an idea gained some political traction because the public sector relies so heavily on private companies to build infrastructure.

It does so through competitive bidding and for profit, and that makes for a relationship that does not always work out well.

Building work done at minimum cost and maximum margin is not seen as being likely to result in energy-efficient buildings with long lifespans.

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The ICS says the independent body would build confidence across the public and private sectors about infrastructure planning outside of the Holyrood election cycle

But the commission has come up with recommendations that could help tackle that.

It wants construction companies and both central and local government to agree – in a ‘construction accord’ – to work together over time, without price being the main consideration in commissioning work.

That feeds into a recommendation that the ‘place principle’ should apply – that is, contracts are not only to construct a building, but to be part of the wider context of creating spaces and complexes of buildings where communities can thrive.

A lot of planning, particularly around town centres, is currently to boost the role of place and community, and not just get the right buildings put up.

Independent advice needed

That would also require branches of government to work better together. The example of Scottish Water is given, in co-ordinating investment projects over several years.

To tie this together, the commission is calling for a specialist body that sets the course for 30 years of infrastructure building.

Crucially, “the independent long-term advice organisation will need to sit outside the political decision making system,” the report says.

The new body would update the plan periodically and issue annual reports on how well government is sticking to the plan.

Being independent of government, and in place from early next year, the plan is for it to be free to criticise as, for instance, the Committee on Climate Change can check the performance of UK and Scottish governments against their targets.

‘Covid-19 has amplified the need for urgent action’

The final report follows on findings that were published in January, that set out the scale and types of infrastructure that will be required over three decades of investment.

Under the commission chairman, Ian Russell, work and consultation by the committee has continued through the Covid-19 lockdown.

That stoppage for the construction industry, and close involvement with government support, is being seen as an opportunity to re-set their relationship and get off to a fresh start.

A longer-term approach could help the industry invest in equipment and skills, improving productivity and its capacity.

Digital technology is also seen as one aspect of the industry that could be enhanced through the partnership.

Mr Russell comments on the report: “Infrastructure has a vital role to play in the delivery of an inclusive, net zero carbon economy and Covid-19 has amplified the need for urgent action and change for economic, social and natural infrastructure.”

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