To remain culturally and politically relevant, infrastructure needs to demonstrate social and local return if the UK is to achieve the mantra of ‘building back better’, says Ipsos MORI’s Ben Marshall.
Everything has changed, nothing has changed. We continue to live through unprecedented and dramatic times, and yet the public continue to view infrastructure mainly through the same lens. There are some early signs of movement, but the fundamentals remain intact.
Back in May I used a piece in Infrastructure Intelligence to identify at least four signals of change we should watch out for, signals which were explored further via the fifth and latest annual Global Infrastructure Index. The Index is based on a survey of public opinion conducted in partnership with the Global Infrastructure Investor Association conducted in 27 countries during July and August.
The Index allows international comparisons to reveal common challenges as well as uniquely national contexts and there are some consistent patterns. For example, we found a year-on-year improvement in ratings of infrastructure in 21 countries but also a strong sense that not enough is being done. Looking again at the four signals: -
1. Recession bites and infrastructure deprioritised. It’s too early to tell but the clear expectation among a majority in all but three countries is that it will be a key part of any post-Covid economic stimulus plans (in one of those countries - the Netherlands - an incredible 77% are satisfied with their country’s infrastructure).
2. Priorities shift towards social. Our Index doesn’t yet offer a trajectory on this, but it does show a preference for investment in social rather than economic infrastructure in all but three countries (sometimes by slim margins but often not). At present, school and hospital buildings feel more fitting than transport and utilities.
3. A refocus on digital rather than physical infrastructure. While the proportion of people globally selecting superfast broadband from a list of investment targets has increased, it remains a strictly ‘mid-table’ priority. One of the reasons for this is likely to be it is out-of-sight; people are broadly satisfied, possibly because they don’t know what ‘better’ might look like.
4. Thermostatic attitudes towards decarbonisation. In fact, Covid has not yet deflected the public away from concerns about climate change and a sense that something must be done. Last year we saw a sharp increase in the salience of environmental sustainability as a preferred factor in decision-making about infrastructure. This year we’ve seen continued interest in investment in renewable energy.
Something else hasn’t really changed; the public are pragmatic. They are mostly fine with businesses in the private sector investing money in infrastructure if it means their country gets the infrastructure it needs. But they are notably cooler on foreign investment even if it results in better quality (especially in more established economies).
Lockdowns have exacerbated regional tensions in Europe and elsewhere; most obviously in Britain where Andy Burnham has recast “levelling up” as “levelling down”. This poses political risks to central governments and, allied to changes to the way we live, work and commute, we may yet see a renewed focus on more local infrastructure projects which reap quicker rewards.
This all contributes to a need to repeat a previous conclusion from the Global Infrastructure Index series that infrastructure needs to restate and re-imagine its case. If we are to see an “infrastructure revolution”, it cannot be confined to a step-change in investment alone. Spending and delivery must be smart, prudent, and green.
In fact, it has to go further still. To remain culturally and politically relevant, infrastructure needs to demonstrate social and local ‘return’. If we are to achieve the mantra of ‘building back better’, then we’ve got to do more than simply build.
Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.