As the UK’s population is projected to rise to 73 million by 2037, a 25- to 30-year evidence-based infrastructure plan is needed to maintain economic growth and global competitiveness, which brings both risks and opportunities. Jon Herbert reports.

London could become the world’s first megacity with a population of 10 million by 2036, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) projects. In contrast, Germany’s population could fall from 83 million in 2010 to some 63 million by 2060. Which country faces the greatest challenges and opportunities?

It is suggested that, soon, Britain will also have to balance how its rural land can best be used for food production vs bioenergy crops and renewable energy. In addition, there is now evidence that when the growth of urban centres and population expansion are taken out of the equation, there has been no overall UK increase in major flooding events for more than a century.

Population growth can be an advantage, as well as a burden, particularly for an island with an ageing population. However, a new highly strategic approach to infrastructure planning in general — including transport, energy, water, housing and construction — is now essential in order to make decisions that will affect how most UK citizens live a quarter of a century into the future.

A key advocate of this view is Sir John Armitt CBE. Following his independent long-term infrastructure planning review commissioned by the Labour Party, Sir John is now calling for a new National Infrastructure Commission with statutory independence to make decisions that he believes governments of all hues have been putting off for too long.

He has put forward for consultation two documents. The first is a Draft Bill on the potential structure and membership of a future commission, and the Parliamentary framework in which it would operate. The second is a survey of possible steps that could be taken to set up the commission and establish a completely new infrastructure planning regime for the UK. Stakeholder comments must be submitted by 31 October 2014. Final proposals and the amended Draft Bill are then due to be ready by January 2015.

Business opportunities

A radical overhaul of infrastructure provisioning is important to businesses for two reasons. First, as many frustrated transport managers know, bottlenecks in the road system and a limited railway freight-carrying capacity can make moving goods slow and expensive. The A14 is regularly cited as an example — the 130-mile-long Suffolk and Cambridge route from Felixstowe to Britain’s north-south motorway arteries in the Midlands has been the subject of a delayed road improvement scheme for almost 10 years. Construction is now scheduled to begin in 2016, before which there will be one further round of consultations!

Second is the business opportunities that could be created, not only from more reliable logistical links, but for many companies in the sustainable products and service supply chains that could gain from road, rail, air, building, and energy infrastructure investments.

Without major changes, transport congestion is said to be an inevitable consequence of greater population requirements. When former British Airways CEO, Sir Rod Eddington, looked into improving transport network arrangements in 2006, he found that, by 2025, £22 billion worth of time would be wasted in England alone. However, his suggestion of road pricing to cut congestion by 50% by 2025 and generate business benefits of some £28 billion annually was not popular.

However, with almost 90% of journeys made by road, it is probably inevitable that road pricing will form part of a national transport solution — if governments can be trusted to ring-fence the income!

Statistics

While projections for global population growth diverge significantly — with different models suggesting either continuing expansion, or a peaking and fall-off effect in the decades ahead — the UK seems bound to unremitting people growth. The ONS predicts a 2037 population of 73 million compared with 63.7 million in 2012. Given that 60% will be the result of immigration, 40% will be due to an increase of the existing population. The London Plan, from the mayor’s office, expects the capital’s population to increase from 8.2 million in 2011 to 10 million by 2036.

In contrast to the UK, many industrial countries have a strategic national body to co-ordinate infrastructure development, including Australia and Singapore.

Homes for all

Up to 10 million extra people will also require new homes by the 2030s, which means that house building must be a constant government priority. In 2009, in the Barker Report, it was estimated that a total of 200,000 new houses would need to be built each year to meet the need.

During the financial crisis, the total dropped to below 10,000 annually and has now only rebounded to some 115,000. Tight planning controls and a fear of encroaching on green belt land are constraints. London alone will need an extra one million homes by 2030; a lack of affordable housing is a major barrier to business expansion in the city. In the case of the capital, brownfield redevelopment and high-density housing could be an answer, linked to other factors such as the tendency for older people to sell larger country properties and move into smaller urban dwellings.

However, in the north, integrated super-cities, where couples can expect to find professional careers, could alter housing patterns. There have already been calls for much closer transport connections between Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.

Call for urgent action

Sir John was chairman of the 2012 Olympic delivery authority and believes that wide cross-party support is needed if politics is not to be a divisive issue that holds back progress. He says that the most significant problem facing the UK is its ageing energy infrastructure, with one fifth of the country’s electrical generating capacity scheduled to be decommissioned in the coming decade, or at least taken offline.

He also feels that the occurrence of “brown-outs” — with rolling falls in power supplies across the country — would be a major wake-up call to political decision-makers. However, it is one that can be avoided.

In a recent letter to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, but directed to all political leaders, Sir John calls for a National Infrastructure Commission to “provide a robust framework within which public and political debate on vital issues can take place”. As planning decisions are invariably constrained, the aim would be to create detailed independent evidence as to why new infrastructure is necessary and what the “real consequences are for day-to-day life” if this is not provided.

Sir John cites the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Committee on Climate Change as precedents where a well-informed public debate can take place. He suggests that, if a Commission is established quickly after the 2015 general election, it should be possible to have a complete picture of UK infrastructure needs during the next Parliament up to 2020.

Flooding

There is now evidence that, without rises in population and building, the UK would not have suffered catastrophic flood damage recently.

A new study has not found a link to climate change as the prima facie cause. A research team from Southampton University says that its work has resulted in a complex picture. Although it has not taken into account more road building, ploughing-up grasslands, draining marshes, or the benefits of flood defence construction, it has detected a link between major flood events, and human expansion and development. Broadly speaking, it sees no significant rise in flood events for the last 129 years, although it is possible that modern flood defences are targeting the most vulnerable areas.

While rainfall was the second highest in 100 years in 2012, the increase in flooding clearly tracks a rise in population over the intervening century, from 38.2 million to 59.1 million, and three times the number of houses built, rising from 7.7 million homes to 24.8 million.

Another report from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), ASDA, Sainsburys and Nestlé, finds that population growth is putting pressure on the uses of land that should be reserved for food production.

The UK’s total land area is 24 million hectares. By 2030, Britain could have a shortfall of two million hectares of arable land. The reason? Modern “crops” including biofuels such as miscanthus (as opposed to biomass), solar panels, parks and wind farms. The report says the Government lacks a coherent vision.

It is estimated by the research team that, while the UK is self-sufficient in wheat, barley, milk, mutton and lamb, it still imports large amounts of fruit, vegetables and pork. Overall, there is a food, feed and trade deficit of £18.6 billion. Population growth will make these figures worse with higher land demands for homes and food. The 19% of food and drink currently lost to waste does not help.

The Cambridge report’s lead author, Andrew Montague-Fuller, is quoted as saying that energy crops included in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) bioenergy programme could take “significant chunks” of land. Decision-makers need to step back and look at the overall direction and vision of policies, he believes.

Meanwhile, EU agricultural policy requires more land to be set aside to protect the natural world. The danger for Britain, according to Sir John, is that we will continue to “muddle along” and “make do and mend” to the detriment of our long-term economic standing in the world.

Last reviewed 15 October 2014