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May 22/ Infrastructure and well-being in Wales

Infrastructure is inextricably linked to well-being. Good infrastructure, well-designed and well-located, developed according to sound principles and in collaboration with the end-users, will likely produce outstanding results for a long period of time. The converse is also true.

The new commentary from the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) – “Infrastructure and long-term wellbeing” – highlights the complexities of integrating well-being into infrastructure decision-making (TL:DR; what works in one place won’t necessarily work in another, but the right principles applied everywhere will produce results that likely meet expectations).

The report aligns strongly with my personal perspectives on the design of future infrastructure. Yes, infrastructure must align with the needs of current users. But at least as important is the ability of infrastructure to be adapted as those needs develop. Sometimes our requirements will develop in shocking or unexpected ways. We don’t have to reach too far back in our memory to understand viscerally how society can change radically, in just a few short weeks.

Sadly we are unlikely to have to wait too long until future changes also start to impact our society and our infrastructure, and also in radical ways. Wales is going to face increased levels of flooding, coastal erosion, drought and wildfires. Our creativity and imagination will be tested as we seek to procure the infrastructure of the 21st century, still with a limited understanding of the future impacts of an increasingly unstable and ferocious climate. 

The long-lived nature of infrastructure investments and developments increases the need for, and value of, getting things right at the outset. Outcomes, both good and bad, can be locked in for many decades. 

In this aspect, the WCPP paper is spot-on. I agree that traditional ‘cost-benefit analysis’ has generally favoured approaches that externalise costs, to the detriment of nature, and to the poorest in society who are least able to ‘buy’ their way out of adverse circumstances. However I would go still further. For example, the UK Treasury Green Book approach to public financing of large infrastructure projects does not currently allow for many of the hard-to-calculate (but very large) potential benefits, way in the future, to be calculated.

As an illustration; if a tidal lagoon were developed that could deliver renewable electricity, whilst at the same time offering protection to a vulnerable coastline against erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels, would current valuation methods enable us to calculate the putative benefits for tens of thousands of future householders who then might not suffer the psychological anguish of being flooded? I think not; and yet, those are precisely the sorts of discussions that might offer the best overall value to society.

My personal opinion is that the proposed Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon was a public amenity and a pilot coastal protection project foremost, with the renewable electricity generation as a side benefit. But how to make that argument with current siloed funding streams? From the perspective of a project developer, the path they took was entirely rational – and it nearly succeeded.

With the tools currently at our disposal we are unable to calculate, or even estimate, the myriad different potential outcomes that arise from any given piece of infrastructure. But the WCPP is making a useful contribution to the conversation by emphasising that well-being is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but an integral part of Welsh public policy.

Many parts of the WCPP report align with my personal thinking about how the next National Infrastructure Commission for Wales should operate. Given that construction of grey infrastructure creates a large environmental impact, the most important question should be whether we need it in the first place, followed by other considerations, such as ‘could policy changes achieve a similar result’, or ‘can green or blue infrastructure mitigate the need for grey’? My view on the ‘black route’ of the proposed M4 extension is that these wider considerations were ignored by the previous Welsh Government, and only implicitly embraced when Mark Drakeford became First Minister.

I am hugely encouraged by the Welsh Government’s recent declaration of both a nature and climate emergency, and by the way that Future Generations has started to be integrated into infrastructure planning in Wales. In twenty-plus years of devolution, I have never been more inspired by radical talk emanating from Cathays Park. I should really say ‘radical-sounding’. The only truly radical position these days is business as usual, which will guarantee us a future far less palatable than the past climate we have had the privilege of enjoying, and to a certain extent, squandering. 

Where we go next in terms of truly internalising well-being in all its facets is hard to say, but those conversations were once heard only on the fringes of academia and in third-sector meetings. I’m delighted to see that they are becoming mainstream. Our Future Generations have a right to expect no less.

Dr David Clubb is the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. This blog post represents his personal views, and does not represent the views of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales.