In the latest ‘Anticipate, React and Recover’ report, the National Infrastructure Commission (The Commission) concludes that the coronavirus pandemic will have a profound social and economic impact on the UK and right across the globe. They also acknowledge that it is the nation’s human capital that have worked day and night to ensure infrastructure networks remain resilient. The very workforce that preserved infrastructure resilience is then missing from its conclusions.
Prior to the report emerging, Sir John Armitt, Chair of the Commission, had addressed MPs and Peers at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure in the House of Commons, calling on ministers to take a “golden moment of opportunity” to make firm decisions on developing sustainable infrastructure beyond HS2 and accelerate existing planned projects as part of the government’s forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy.
Within the current £0.6 trillion National Infrastructure Plan, the utility sector of gas, power, water and waste management organisations form the largest single contributor.
On the subject of the workforce and how infrastructure organisations can ensure they have enough of the vital human capital under ‘economic full employment’ and the tightest UK labour market since records began, Sir John advised: “At present, there is an insufficiently joined-up approach to infrastructure skills development in the UK, with a wide range of responsible bodies operating across different geographic and political boundaries. The human capital aspects of the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills need to be refreshed to help ensure our pipeline of future workers is adequate for the challenges ahead.”
The Commission then published its recommendations to Government on resilience and the future of UK infrastructure but unfortunately omitted the workforce. They do conclude that maintaining a resilient system requires a proactive approach to resilience, facing up to the possibility of different or harder challenges in the future. Any framework for resilience will also “need to face up to uncomfortable truths, value resilience properly, test for vulnerabilities and drive adaptation before it is too late.”
The report focuses on the broad UK infrastructure and suggests measures for ensuring that infrastructure is resilient against the likely future challenges. It goes into some detail about how resilience should be constituted and measured and proposes a new framework. Within the main recommendations are:
- government should publish a full set of resilience standards every five years, following advice from regulators, alongside an assessment of any changes needed to deliver them
- infrastructure operators should carry out regular and proportionate stress tests, overseen by regulators, to ensure their systems and services can meet government’s resilience standards, and take actions to address any vulnerabilities
- infrastructure operators should develop and maintain long term resilience strategies, and regulators should ensure their determinations in future price reviews are consistent with meeting resilience standards in the short and long term
Sir John advises in the foreword “This report comes at a time when the fragility of our way of life has been brought into sharp focus. At Budget 2018, the government asked the National Infrastructure Commission to undertake a study on the resilience of the nation’s economic infrastructure. Now, at publication, we find ourselves in a remarkably different world.”
Energy & Utility Skills Chief Executive, Nick Ellins, stated “I have to question whether omitting the very workers that are being openly applauded for their delivery of national resilience for all our critical infrastructure and essential public services right across the pandemic is prudent counsel. That is an uncomfortable truth. I believe the UK and devolved governments would have welcomed expert advice from the NIC, and are looking right now at how they develop their approach to human capital as they work to take the nation out of the pandemic successfully and drive a high performing post European economy. The utility sector has taken a lead, and through the major Energy & Utilities Skills Partnership, releases its 2020-2025 Workforce Renewal & Skills Strategy next week. We do fully support the NIC recommendations for a robust framework for resilience, and that such a framework should deliver infrastructure that is resilient to a range of future challenges.”
“As the All Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure heard recently, the main human capital strategy for infrastructure, the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, is now badly out of date. It is disconnected from the reality of the constricted UK labour market to date, from impending job losses across the economy, from modern industrial strategy, the workforce needs of the sector’s strategic value to the economy and the UK’s uncoordinated approach to its critical human capital. The Infrastructure & Projects Authority must now take action – as the designated owner of infrastructure’s skills strategy and as an infrastructure champion on behalf of HM Treasury.”
The National Infrastructure Commission exists to provide the government with impartial, expert advice on major long term infrastructure challenges. Its remit covers all sectors of economic infrastructure: energy, transport, water and wastewater (drainage and sewerage), waste, flood risk management and digital communications. While the Commission is required to carry out its work in accordance with the remit and the terms of reference for specific studies, in all other respects it has complete discretion to determine independently its recommendations. Its core objectives are to support sustainable economic growth across all regions of the UK, improve competitiveness, and improve quality of life.
Energy & Utility Skills was a consultee to the study, providing evidence for why the infrastructure workforce has to be recognised as critical to resilience, and setting out how the currently disjointed approach to skills and labour market across the UK puts sustainability at risk. Energy & Utility Skills are credited in the “organisations engaged” section of the new NIC report, however it advises “Analysis of malicious threats, skills and the financial stability of infrastructure operators were limited to the scoping stages of the study, and so are not considered in this report.”