Getting Britain building again

By Tracy Blackwell | 06 March 2024

The Second National Infrastructure Assessment was published at the end of last year, seeking to lay out the direction of travel for infrastructure investment over the next 30 years. With a focus on ‘a programme of transformation for the country’s energy, transport and other key networks over the next 30 years’ it is nothing if not ambitious.

However, it notes that a key sticking point in achieving the necessary investment is the speed of the planning system.

This is a fundamental point that comes out more and more often in the forums I attend and it is clear we need a solution. In my view we need to create a new public-private partnership designed specifically to help local areas bring forward infrastructure and regeneration projects and, in the process, create jobs, increase regional productivity and expand the skills base.

Pension Insurance Corporation, the organisation I lead, is a major investor in UK infrastructure with upwards of £11bn invested in areas like social housing, urban regeneration and renewable energy. As our business sector grows, we expect our industry will have up to £200bn to invest in the UK over the next decade. So there is no shortage of capital to invest. The real issue is there simply are not enough projects for us to invest in that we need to provide the secure, long-term cashflows we require to pay our policyholders’ pensions over the coming decades.

A very significant factor for the lack of projects is many local authorities no longer have either enough capacity within their planning teams. In fact, only 21% of major planning applications were decided within the statutory 13-week period councils have to make their decisions. The same figure was 57% 10 years ago. The reality is that proposed developments – much-needed urban regeneration and infrastructure projects – are subject to routine delays, rising costs and ultimately, cancellation.

If we are serious about breaking out of the UK’s economic malaise and increasing regional productivity, this cycle must be broken. I think the right way to do it is through a new public-private partnership that helps us all achieve our common aims.

The PFC’s recommendation is that businesses with an interest in an efficient planning system, including investors, developers, housebuilders, energy firms, the telecoms industry, the transport sector, water companies, supermarkets, and many more, contribute towards a new targeted and independently administered fund.

With a target of raising £22.5m over three years, the money would be used to fund a team of planners to help unblock the system, tackle backlogs, and get Britain building again.

In my view this is not a cost – it is an investment, both financial and social. The money will be targeted exactly where it is needed most, helping unlock new outcomes and opportunities, develop skills, and regenerate our towns and cities. There is a real opportunity for the private sector to actively contribute to a solution that helps overcome the lack of planning expertise and capacity among local authorities, ultimately bringing forward the projects we all want to see.

Tracy Blackwell is chief executive of Pension Insurance Corporation

X – @PensionCorp

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Planning Regeneration Infrastructure Economic growth Investment Council staff