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UK national infrastructure policies: safe and future proofed or a disaster waiting to happen?

22nd August 2018

Daniel Rafferty, Account Executive in the Grayling Planning and Infrastructure team, explores the steps taken in the UK to avoid disasters such as the Genoa bridge collapse last week.

Last Tuesday morning, an 80-metre section of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed. As the catastrophe continues to unfold, attention now turns to those deemed responsible for the collapse.

Italy’s governing party, The Five Star Movement, has made a habit of opposing major infrastructure projects in recent years. In 2013, a post on the party’s website dismissed safety fears over the strength of the Morandi Bridge as a “fairy story”. While it alone cannot be held responsible for the disaster, the Five Star Movement’s ambivalence towards investing in vital infrastructure projects is symptomatic of a wider attitude prevalent in Italy, which may go some way to explaining the disaster in Genoa.

Having assumed office alongside the Lega Nord in June, the populist Five Star Movement has continued to voice opposition to large infrastructure projects in the country.

Just this week, Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli moved to scrap plans for a new high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon, describing his “anger and disgust” at the project, scalding it as a “squandering of public money”. The rail line, which would have cut travel times from Paris to Milan from seven hours to four, had been proposed by the centre-left government of Matteo Renzi, and now appears to be in doubt.

The same can be said of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), which was set for completion in 2020. Facing hostility from the Italian government and the Environment Minister’s announcement of a review into the project, the TAP consortium is now seeking alternative routes for the pipeline. All this despite pressure from President Trump, who, upon meeting Prime Minister Conte in July, expressed his hopes that Italy would complete the pipeline, which would provide Europe with an alternative to Russian-sourced gas.

Whether the events of Tuesday will force a rethink of the Five Star Movement’s attitude towards infrastructure projects remains to be seen, but the early signs suggest that a wholesale shift is unlikely.

Prime Minister Conte has already pointed the finger at Autostrade per l’Italia, the private company responsible for Italy’s motorways, while Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini responded to the disaster by blaming “European constraints” for the lack of investment in the Morandi Bridge. The Government has now declared a 12-month State of Emergency, and the inquest into the disaster will ring alarm bells further afield than this corner of north west Italy.

Coverage of last week’s disaster is rightly focused on the tragic loss of life suffered at the Morandi Bridge, and the continuing efforts of Italian authorities to clear the site of debris. Yet, questions will inevitably turn to why this happened. Moving closer to home, since the Grenfell Tower fire last year, the UK Government earmarked £400m to help housing associations and councils reclad buildings that they own. But will ministers take lessons from what happened in Genoa? Are they confident in the strength of the country’s wider planning and infrastructure? And if so, is this confidence justified?

The Government receives ongoing advice from expert bodies. The National Infrastructure Commission is one such body which advises the British Government and emphasises the need to maintain high standards in infrastructure works. The Commission secretariat is comprised of 40 individuals, drawing in expertise from fields as varied as engineering, economics, architecture and business. The Commission is tasked with publishing a National Infrastructure Assessment once every Parliament, with the first such edition published just over a month ago.

In its Assessment, the Commission lays out what it deems to be the UK’s most pressing infrastructure needs. This year’s inaugural edition delivered recommendations including a switch to low carbon energy for the country’s power and heating, the implementation by Metro Mayors of long-term strategies for transport, employment and housing in their areas, and a renewed effort by Government to work with councils and private companies to deliver roads which are fit for the future. The Government is now required to lay the Assessment before Parliament and deliver a response within 12 months in the form of a National Infrastructure Strategy.

Tuesday’s tragic events have brought into sharp focus the need for high-quality infrastructure and planning policies. Whether it is a national government or private company responsible, the importance of thorough infrastructure policies, and more widely, a respect for the built environment which already exists around us, cannot be understated. The National Infrastructure Assessment and subsequent strategy provides the UK Government with the perfect impetus to ensure national infrastructure meets high standards and delivers the required public benefits. Whilst the events on the Morandi Bridge highlight the devastating consequences of government and private sector ambivalence, it remains to be seen whether the UK Government, and governments across Europe, will learn lessons from the tragedy in Genoa.

If you would like to find out more about planning and infrastructure issues, get in touch with, and follow the conversation at @GraylingPR.

Grayling Team

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