There is public support for delivering infrastructure more quickly but people still want the public to have a fair say on plans, says Ben Marshall from Ipsos MORI.
In June the prime minister announced a new infrastructure delivery taskforce, named ‘Project Speed’, to ensure Britain is “building the right things better and faster than before”. He described a mission to “scythe” through red tape and put an end to “newt-counting”, heralding major reform of our planning system. But what do the public think?
On the face of it, pretty much the same. Ipsos MORI’s polls have shown an impatience to get on with building. Most Britons recognise the housing crisis - three-quarters at last count - plus the inadequacies of much of our infrastructure and the positive impacts investment can have on economic and social life. For some time now they have been tired of austerity and in favour of state intervention and stimulus.
But new polling highlights more circumspect forces at work. For one, the public tend not to prioritise speed over democracy. While three in ten, 31%, favour avoiding any delay to tackling infrastructure problems, even if it means the public’s views cannot be heard properly, more, 37%, favour delay so that the public’s views can be heard properly even if this means that infrastructure problems are not tackled when they need to be. This leaves 32% unsure one way or the other.
Recent years have seen a remarkable shift towards in-principle support for boosting housing supply but, lest we forget, attitudes are conditional. Our surveys for Create Streets and the Institution of Civil Engineers show support for new housing weakens when it is unattractive and strengthens if sufficient infrastructure is in place. They perceive new housing to be small, poky and unaffordable. Quality and legacy matters.
In global terms, the British are comparatively sensitive to greenfield development – perhaps leading the prime minister to leave the green belt well alone. Our imagined Britain is green and pleasant, and we overestimate the extent to which the country is already developed. This does not make people ‘nimby’ (although some are), rather, it’s more that they have concerns (many legitimate) about infrastructure being done to them, not with, or for, them. This was a theme of the recent public administration committee’s call for more local input.
There are other speed bumps too. The public are more inclined to prioritise maintaining and repairing existing infrastructure in Britain before spending on anything new. Similarly, in group discussions we find an archetypal British ‘make do and mend’ outlook, related, in part, to the often terrible state of local roads and the well-publicised failings of grandiose national infrastructure projects.
We’ve also found that compared to MPs, the public have greener instincts and are more sceptical of overseas sources of investment.
So, yes to getting things done. Yes to urgency. But no to speed at any cost.
Ben Marshall is research director at Ipsos MORI who work with infrastructure leaders, using insights to support design, delivery, marketing and evaluation.