Ageing UK infrastructure systems need to be more joined up

A research consortium led by Oxford University warns that significant investment will be needed in many cases to replace the UK’s ageing infrastructure systems.

A major new report by the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium has looked into how the UK can meet the future growing demand for energy, water, waste, ICT and transport systems. It recommends the sectors involved to work more closely together to provide coordinated infrastructure systems as their networks become increasingly interdependent and complex. It also suggests the introduction of new measures to manage growing demand, like smart electricity meters, water meters and road pricing.

For the first time, researchers have used the same method to analyse the nation’s energy, transport, water, waste and ICT systems. They demonstrated how the same factors – including population increase, economic growth and energy prices – influence demand for all of these sectors.

'In the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the Treasury made the case for improving Britain’s national infrastructure and we’ve recently had the HS2 announcement,' said Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, who led the study. 'Our analysis demonstrates that to get the most out of these systems you have to plan for the long term. Traditionally we have dealt with transport, energy and water in isolation – we have to pay more attention to how they interact with each other.'

Professor Jim Watson, from Sussex University, said: 'In the UK we have complex regulatory arrangements for energy, transport, water, waste and digital communications. Whilst a complex picture is not necessarily a bad thing, there is a need to ensure that policies for these sectors are sufficiently co-ordinated.

'Government and regulatory bodies could do much more to ensure that smart solutions to today’s sustainability challenges are not missed –particularly where these cut across more than one infrastructure sector.'

The study, 'A fast track analysis of strategies for infrastructure provision in Great Britain', says that the UK’s carbon emissions targets will have to shape its infrastructure system in the long term – above all in energy; but also in transport, water supply, waste water and solid waste. It suggests that carbon targets and rising global energy prices will be a driver of innovation.

The research has been conducted over the last year by a consortium of seven of the UK’s leading universities, who have been working closely with government and utility companies. This is the first time that researchers have conducted a national review of likely future demands on all of the UK’s major infrastructure systems. The researchers are developing computer-modelled simulations to test future infrastructure policies and designs, which adapt existing systems as much as possible and target investments that are likely to provide us with the biggest benefits in the future.