Politicians and industry leaders need to listen to the latest public sentiment on infrastructure and the environment, says Ben Marshall.
In his keynote speech at the Conservative party’s recent conference, Boris Johnson described the UK’s national infrastructure as “way behind some of our key competitors”. This inadequacy also filters through to public opinion, with Britons’ ratings of their infrastructure being inferior to four of the other seven G8 nations and 64% thinking that we’re not doing enough as a country to meet our infrastructure needs.
The government is in a rush to deliver, buoyed by a sense of impatience among the public as well as the economic and political imperative, identifying transport is one of the “supreme leveller-uppers”. Ipsos MORI’s annual Global Infrastructure Index, conducted in partnership with the Global Infrastructure Investor Association, has found a pragmatic streak in public opinion - people want to ‘get it done’ - and a strong conviction that this will create jobs and boost the economy.
The public are, though, sensitive to means as well as ends and there are circumspect forces and strong principles at play. For example, while 31% favour avoiding any delay to tackling infrastructure problems even if it means the public’s views cannot be heard properly, a higher proportion, 37%, would slow things down so that views can be heard properly (the remainder are unsure either way).
The Global Infrastructure Index has previously found evidence of a ‘delivery deficit’ too; a growing sense that we have a poor record at getting national projects right. This year’s survey found the public continuing to prioritise maintaining and repairing existing infrastructure before spending on anything new, pointing the way perhaps to prioritising ‘easy win’ projects which improve areas and realise benefits faster than slower-burn mega projects. After all, it is potholed roads, scruffy high streets and shaky broadband connection which are more typically the subject of daily conversation.
Another clear message is that the environment matters as a point of principle - and increasingly so. This sentiment translates into higher priority attached to investments in renewables and energy infrastructure. A third of Britons rank the environment as the most important factor among seven when planning infrastructure for the future, up from 28% last year and 19% the year before. And while ‘yimbyism’ has weakened across the board, it is much stronger for building wind farms and solar infrastructure locally, than it is for building new local homes, roads and rail.
When asked to choose between prioritising considerations of infrastructure’s impact on the environment or on the economy, people choose the environment by a margin of more than two to one. While this need not be a binary choice in practice, the Index helpfully highlights popular instincts and values.
It raises questions too, including one about what is environmentally friendly infrastructure? The public want to see investments which contribute to net zero but are also sensitive to any damage caused by construction. Another question - how can supply meet (and encourage) demand? The Index recorded a sharp uptick in the priority people attach to investment in electric vehicle charging – up by eight percentage points year-on-year.
If Britain’s infrastructure is “way behind”, it needs to catch-up. This requires infrastructure leaders and politicians to stay in touch with public sentiment and own infrastructure’s environmental future, an issue which clearly matters to people. ‘Going green’ is for life, not just for COP26.
Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.