Ipsos MORI’s research on coronavirus and public opinion is providing valuable insights for the infrastructure sector to take note of, says Ben Marshall.
“Stay at home”. Three small words with huge impacts for the nation’s infrastructure and the services run on it. The sector now has a surfeit of supply – an unwelcome stress-test of its resilience – but what of ‘demand’? What about infrastructure’s consumers, their perspectives and priorities?
Last month, National Grid warned that record low demand for electricity could lead to windfarms and power plants being turned off. TfL could, reportedly, “run out of cash”. The railways are back under government control. Aviation is imperilled and housebuilders are struggling. Our roads are quiet. We are living through unprecedented and dramatic changes to our society and psyche.
The new normal? Possibly. Half of Britons think it will be a year or longer before “life will return to normal”, six in ten that it will be at least this long before the economy starts growing again. Britain is the least likely among G8 countries to think that economy and business should still open if the virus is not fully contained. Five out of ten of us say we would feel comfortable going shopping after lockdown, three would be OK to go out to eat and drink, but only two in ten would be happy to use public transport.
While these numbers suggest that it will take time to return to anything like normality, it can be tempting to read too much into what is happening; no-one really knows what the future will look like. But in terms of public opinion and infrastructure, there are at least four signals we should watch out for.
- Recession bites and infrastructure deprioritised. Our surveys find almost nobody disagreeing that investing in infrastructure is vital to the country’s future economic growth. But benefits are much less tangible than costs, and past failings linger in cultural memory. While there is no appetite to return to austerity and cuts, sensitivities about budgets will become more acute. Infrastructure will need to restate its case, and well.
- Priorities shift towards social. The next generation of economic infrastructure projects might have to play second fiddle to social ones like hospitals and schools. Before coronavirus, the public were cool on the idea of paying more in tax, even borrowing more, to fund infrastructure but were supportive of anything that helps fund the NHS.
- A refocus on digital rather than physical. Two years ago, 66% agreed that “because of technology I expect people in the UK will be travelling to work less in the future”. The crisis and its digital hyperactivity will no doubt accelerate this expectation. Superfast broadband has been a ‘mid-table’ priority in the past, behind flood defences and rail. Is that about to change?
- Thermostatic attitudes towards decarbonisation. We saw a sharp increase last year in the salience of environmental sustainability as a preferred factor in decision-making about infrastructure. Now, the public mostly say they want the environment prioritised in the economic recovery, but are divided (almost equally) on whether or not the government should take actions which might harm the environment to help the economy recover.
As recently as March the government committed to record levels of investment in infrastructure as part of a “revolution”. In a few short weeks coronavirus has potentially shifted us into a new paradigm. But for how long? Just as public attitudes and behaviour will play a pivotal role in getting us through this crisis, so too will they have profound implications for infrastructure’s future.
Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.