NIC chair calls for look at rail investment following Manchester decision, as group releases second national infrastructure assessment 

The government’s top infrastructure advisor has called for an ‘urgent and comprehensive’ review of rail priorities for the North and Midlands to restore confidence after the cancellation of HS2. 

National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) chair, Sir John Armitt, said the government’s recent policy change had replaced a long-term strategy for rail, in the form of 2021’s Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), with “a collection of rail projects at various stages of maturity”. 


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Manchester was among four cities where growth would be ‘constrained’ without new mass transit infrastructure

Armitt was speaking at the launch of the NIC’s second National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA), a five-yearly review which sets the agenda for major projects for the next three decades. 

Addressing “the elephant in the room”, Armitt admitted that the HS2 decision had come “late in the day” as the commission was preparing its assessment. 

But he insisted the recommendation that government invest £22bn in new mass transit infrastructure had already been formulated when the government made its announcement. 

The NIA report itself said that the assessment had been undertaken on the basis of the delivery of the IRP and admitted the change in policy left “a major gap in the UK’s rail strategy, around which a number of cities have based their economic growth plans”. 

It added that it was “not yet clear” what the scope and delivery schedule for the list of schemes that was initially announced – and subsequently pared back – as part of the Network North plan, which the government intended as a replacement for the northern spur of HS2. 

Armitt said: “Where until recently we had a long-term strategy for rail in the integrated rail plan, we now have a collection of rail projects at various stages of maturity.  

“What government should do now, and urgently, is work with local leaders to turn a collection of schemes into a rigorously costed portfolio of rail improvements, with clear delivery timescales, designed to address the longstanding capacity and connectivity challenges facing the North and the Midlands.  

“The commission stands ready to help the government in this important task. Alongside this, government should take a hard look at the governance and delivery arrangements of future major rail projects.  

“We must learn lessons of HS2 and ensure that project design and management, supply chain contracting, and oversight are all set up to exert a much tighter grip on costs and delivery.” 

While the NIA report acknowledged a change in working patterns post-pandemic, it said this did not weaken the case for long-term investment in public transport, noting forecasts of an additional 20,000 morning peak hour passenger journeys into Birmingham city centre in 2055 and up to 13,000 in Manchester. 

Alongside these two cities, it identified Leeds and Bristol as areas likely to be “constrained” over the next three decades without an increase in capacity and on this basis recommended two-thirds of the £22bn be spent on major projects in these city regions.  

The report said the remaining third should be allocated to other cities in the UK, suggesting a combination of spending on large cities with relatively small public transport networks, such as Liverpool and Sheffield, or smaller but fast-growing cities like Coventry and Norwich. 

For the latter, it suggested bus rapid transit systems could be a more cost-effective solution than rail or tram schemes. 

“Transport budgets should be devolved to all local authorities responsible for strategic transport so that all places are able to maintain existing infrastructure – for example improving the condition of road surfaces – and invest for local growth,” the report said. 

Beyond transport infrastructure, the NIA made a series of recommendations, including on the need to roll out heat pumps across UK homes. 

It made a strong recommendation against the use of hydrogen for private heating however, urging the government to focus on supporting its use for power generation and industrial decarbonisation. 

Other core recommendations included the creation of a new strategic energy reserve, the rollout of gigabit capable broadband nationwide by 2030 and the building of additional water supply infrastructure.

It also urges the government to introduce compulsory water metering and implement reforms to meet a 65% recycling target by 2035. 

The commission calculates that to carry out its recommendations effectively, the government would have to sustain its commitment to increase public sector investment in infrastructure to around £30bn per year until 2040. 

This would put it at the top of the funding envelope of 1.3% GDP per year set by the Treasury for the commission’s recommendations.