Jonathan Roe asks: Is it time to rethink the role of private capital in funding greatly needed projects?
It is widely acknowledged that the gap between the UK’s infrastructure need and what it is building (or plans to) is widening. In its Infrastructure Progress Review of 2022, the National Infrastructure Commission remarked that “gaps are opening up between aspiration and execution”, with the UK “falling behind in many infrastructure sectors”.
On face value, this is perhaps unsurprising. Surging construction inflation and depleted Treasury coffers – following high levels of pandemic spending and sluggish economic performance – have forced departments to reign in spending and rendered a swathe of infrastructure projects unaffordable.
Consequently, projects have been pared back, pushed back or scrapped altogether. In March of this year, ministers announced that parts of the HS2 high-speed railway project would be rephased and work on the Euston terminus has been paused. The story is similar in roads, with construction of the Lower Thames Crossing – the largest upgrade to the UK’s road network in a generation – being rephased by two years. And in health, plans to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 have been downscaled.
The merits of deferring projects as a response to inflation is questionable and will likely have the opposite effect on affordability. The laws of compounding interest have taught us that deferred projects, without a scope reduction, will be much more expensive in real terms. Unless there is a global reset, rising prices for materials, labour and equipment, as well as other issues, will continue to impact the construction industry.
Deferring, delaying or rephasing projects also creates a bigger problem for the future. It compromises the lengthy (and costly) analysis on which planning and investment decisions are based, forcing extensive rework, but more importantly it delays the societal and economic benefits of big-ticket infrastructure at a time that the UK needs to speed up, not slow down, if it is to build a fairer and stronger society, secure energy independence and decarbonise its economy.
So how does the UK plug the infrastructure gap, and the sharply widening funding gap that is driving it? The answer may lie in private capital, where there are resources ready and willing to invest in infrastructure. Private capital also brings other benefits, stimulating innovation and driving down cost by creating strong financial motivators for performance improvement (if designed correctly, of course). It sounds like a perfect match, but there are three key challenges that must be overcome.
First, international competition for capital is increasingly fierce, with the US introducing its Inflation Reduction Act and the EU unveiling its Green Deal Industrial Plan. Other countries are getting on board too: in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is creating the commercial and legal structures to enable private-sector participation in public projects and has a rapidly growing pipeline. The list goes on.
Second, the UK lacks a defined commercial structure to enable capital to be deployed into many of its infrastructure projects. The UK should be a logical destination for infrastructure capital. Pension, infrastructure and sovereign funds are attracted to ‘good’ projects, and the UK has them, along with the stable (if not perfect) regulatory regime and legal frameworks that give investors confidence. But the absence of a successor to Private Finance 2 (PF2) – a new approach to public-private partnerships that was phased out abruptly in 2018 – leaves no clear route to connect private capital with public infrastructure projects facing funding gaps.
Finally, the planning regime for major infrastructure projects has become slower, less predictable and more expensive, reducing the confidence and appetite of investors, which need certainty that projects will actually happen when deploying capital. The Treasury acknowledges that “the system has slowed in recent years, with the timespan for granting DCOs [development consent orders] increasing by 65% between 2012 and 2021”.
So what to do? As for the latter (the planning regime), a review of the DCO regime is under way, albeit in its early stages.
The first two challenges, however, are more prickly. The UK government’s response to investment-boosting legislation in the US and Europe has been limited, and it has been silent on what should replace PF2. Resurrecting it in its former guise is unlikely to be the right answer, but neither is continuing to defer critical infrastructure projects and allowing the gap to grow ever wider. Financial necessity requires a route forward and a way of activating private capital is the logical contender.
Moving forward will require ministers to do more than just bring institutional investors to the table; they will need to take the lead in developing the solution. Waiting for the investor community to pitch ideas will not work; with significant opportunity outside our national borders and capital flows that follow the path of least resistance, an active intervention will be required. And it will be required soon.
A united voice across the sector would also move the conversation forward and there is an opportunity for both public and trade bodies alike – including the UK Infrastructure Bank, Infrastructure and Projects Authority and Construction Leadership Council, among others – to bring a cohesive voice to ministers.
The UK has the potential to close the infrastructure gap and deliver bold, transformative projects that the country urgently needs. But it needs to grasp the nettle.