The National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) was established in 2018 as a non-statutory body to advise and make recommendations to Welsh Ministers on Wales’ economic and environmental infrastructure needs over the next five to thirty years.
The Commission has this week released what it believes are the key infrastructure needs for Wales’ future, which all - unsurprisingly - have a strong technology element. The key themes identified include digital communications, energy and transport.
The Commission describes the current plans as “provisional” and is calling for interested parties to submit their views on these identified themes.
NICW said that its first year has been focused on taking an overall view of the current state of Wales’ infrastructure, to gain an understanding of how changes in the economy, the environment and technology will demand new forms of infrastructure.
Interim Chair of the NICW, John Lloyd Jones, OBE, said:
This report sets out our early thinking and identifies priorities for further investigation. But we must stress that this is still early in the process and we will not rush to make recommendations to the Welsh Ministers until we have found compelling evidence for infrastructure solutions.
Commissioners have been eager to engage a wide variety of users and providers of infrastructure to understand their aspirations and concerns for the future. Wales is a diverse country with differing needs. During the year we have visited North, Mid and South Wales to hear about the opportunities and challenges in different parts of the country. We are grateful to the many people who have helped us.
We will produce our first “state of the nation” report by November 2021.
What is in store?
NICW notes that whilst Wales’ employment is relatively high and is supported by strong further and higher education sectors, there are challenges facing the country. It’s report notes that Wales is small, thinly populated compared to England and doesn’t have many population hubs. In addition, productivity and skill levels are low and a relatively high proportion of jobs are in the public sector.
Furthermore, Wales has become over-reliant on private transport, its population is ageing, the working age population is declining, and it continues to face other global challenges, such as economic turmoil and climate change.
With this framing in mind, the Commission has identified decarbonisation, connectivity and resilience as its key themes for future infrastructure projects. As noted above these are just provisional views for which NICW is seeking evidence, but it is considering the following:
Digital communications - NICW states that the primary focus for public funds should be on extending superfast broadband to as many households as possible using the lowest cost technology. The Commission’s provisional view is that 4G and 5G mobile broadband may be the lowest cost technology to provide superfast connections to some Welsh households and that a greater proportion of public funds should be allocated to mobile rather than to fixed broadband or other infrastructure objectives.
Energy - The Commission is seeking to understand how the existing electricity grid is constraining the growth of renewable electricity generation and why these constraints arise. It wants to rapidly improve the relationship between Wales’ energy grid and the future growth of renewable energy, including innovations in energy storage, electrical engineering, the planning system, and other government interventions. NICW’s provisional view is that decentralised community-based infrastructure projects could have an important role to play in transforming the energy supply chain.
Transport - The Commission believes that improving connectivity along the strategic East West Wales corridors, to/from England, in North East and South East Wales is a transport priority. It wants to know, how can capacity be increased and congestion reduced? NICW also believes Wales’ road infrastructure must be prepared for the move to zero emissions vehicles. It wants to better understand how the transition to zero emission road transport can be enabled, the infrastructure barriers to zero emissions and how they can be overcome, especially in rural areas where the market may not provide the solution.
Commenting on this week’s report, Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James said:
I thank the NICW for its initial analysis of Wales’ future infrastructure needs, and welcome its clear priorities for further investigation.
Developing infrastructure that contributes to growing our economy in a sustainable and responsible way is vital. Having declared a Climate Emergency earlier this year, we need to ensure our new infrastructure is fit for the long term – so that means considering low carbon options. So I am pleased the Commission has set decarbonisation, connectivity and resilience as themes that will permeate its work.
I look forward to receiving its firm recommendations in due course, to which the Welsh Government will formally respond.