National Infrastructure Commission: The National Infrastructure Assessment, Process and Methodology
Catherine Mitchell and Matthew Lockwood, Energy Policy Group, University of Exeter
The University of Exeter’s Energy Policy Group (EPG) is very pleased to submit to the Consultation on the National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) – Process and Methodology.
The EPG has a project: Innovation and Governance for a Sustainable Economy (IGov). This has a small team working on the politics and decision-making processes of governance which fits squarely within the NIC remit.
At root, IGov argues that GB energy governance (including of interconnection and storage) is not fit for purpose. We have developed a DRAFT institutional framework for what we would argue is a fit-for-purpose GB energy governance structure. This is attached as an Annex to this submission.
In general, the NIC thoughts and ideas have mirrored many of those developed within IGov. IGov supports greater direction from Government with respect to its energy policy, and attendant infrastructure. For us, there are two central issues:
The first is the near-absence of meaningful debate and consent in choices about infrastructure (and energy policy) needs. As you say in Para 20 / page 10, ‘the provision of new infrastructure has historically relied on an often fragile and incomplete political and public consensus’. We think a robust and transparent means of enabling a meaningful debate, identifying a consensus, and then acting upon it is at the heart of UK’s decision-making problems.
In countries with different electoral systems, for example Denmark, the political system is more able to produce stable societal consensus for large-scale long-term investments. This is essentially because political parties directly represent key societal constituencies. The UK’s majoritarian system produces more short-termism, the response to which has been the delegation of long-term strategy to technocratic bodies, of which the NIC, alongside others such as the Commission on Climate Change, is one. The weakness of this approach is that it does not, by itself, produce consensus, and decisions about politically controversial investments are not necessarily resolved through this route. This can be seen, for example, in the case of the Davies Commission on the expansion of airport runway capacity.
This situation suggests that the need for such bodies, including the NIC, to put a particular premium on not only being open and consultative, but actually helping to facilitate greater consensus between societal groups. In the past, something of this role was played by Royal Commissions, especially standing Commissions such as that on Environmental Pollution, which existed for over 30 years.
In our work on the energy and climate policy, we have proposed that this function needs to be taken more seriously in the UK because of the large costs, landscape effects and implications for the changing role of households that will be involved. One option would be a body specifically for this sector, but this could be part of the NIC’s role or incorporated into other institutions. The key thing is the function. A possible approach to this would be to work with leaders of groups representing different constituencies, facilitating dialogue on trade-offs, supported by information. Others, for example, the Green Alliance and the Centre for Sustainable Energy, have also put forward ideas of how this ‘meaningful consent’ can be developed, maintained and incorporated. We would urge more thinking about this in the Methodology adopted in the NIA, which currently seems to focus on scenarios, and is vague on how ‘engagement’ will actually take place.
Our second point, relates to energy and climate change in particular, our Group focus, but is relevant to all sectors which require transformation. We argue that the current governance framework of energy is not fit for purpose. This is because it continues to provide value (or payments) to enable the current system to operate in the ways it has broadly done since gas and electricity privatisation in the 1980’s and 1990’s. If a sustainable, ‘smart and flexible energy system’ is wanted, then the way the energy system provides value has to change. It has to give value to those dimensions that provide a flexible and smart operation, and it has to stop giving value to those things which undermine it. This is a transformational process that requires a strategic framework for energy – and this will require institutional change. Whilst we do not work on water or waste, we imagine the same argument holds true. Until value within the sector matches what is wanted, the sectors will continue as they currently are.
The full submission can be downloaded here: Submission to the National Infrastructure Assessment consultation Aug2016