Why Wales’ new infrastructure strategy is worth getting excited about
If I tell you that It’s not often I’ve found myself excited by a piece of infrastructure policy, I’m sure I’ll be in good company.
Hold on to your hats; the just-published Wales Infrastructure Investment Strategy (WIIS) is about to smash your concept of what infrastructure policy can mean to the environment, well-being and social justice.
What can I mean by that? Well, take this direct quote for example: “Infrastructure investment programmes must embody the value of social justice and move to eliminate inequality in Wales.”
It’s true – this strategy explicitly sets out Welsh Government’s intention to use a strategic approach to infrastructure investment to help tackle social inequality.
In fact, the themes of social justice, environment and place are embedded throughout the document. There is frequent reference to the foundational economy; to the ‘Town Centre First’ approach; and to green infrastructure and natural solutions. Sustainability runs through the whole thing like electrons in a wire.
The increasing focus on improving well-being outcomes from infrastructure isn’t ‘just’ a Wales thing. If you look through some other recent infrastructure strategies, such as the New Zealand draft infrastructure strategy, the preliminary stage on Canada’s Infrastructure Assessment, and the 2021 Australia Infrastructure Plan, you’ll see that well-being is becoming less a peripheral ‘bolt-on’ and more a core component and desirable outcome of infrastructure delivery.
Indeed – not that we should be evaluating strategies with this sort of metric – Australia’s Plan contains the word ‘sustainability’ no fewer than 614 times.
But the WIIS goes a bit further; there is a very tight integration between the well-being goals, the nature and climate emergencies, and infrastructure, throughout the document. It appears to explicitly set out to break down the walls between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure, demonstrating that social and natural infrastructure are of equal importance to what might be perceived as ‘traditional’ forms of infrastructure such as roads or buildings.
This aligns with my personal philosophy of infrastructure that prioritises happiness, health and long-term sustainability over more straightforward but less helpful indicators such as GDP. This is not to say that economic indicators are irrelevant; but to accept that the playing field has been highly skewed towards increasing outputs that are tangential to well-being, at least once a certain amount of wealth has been achieved at a country-level.
In order to redress the balance – as required by our understanding of the near-unbearable pressures that our activities are causing to local and global ecosystems – we must therefore radically amend every policy, budgetary and social tool at our disposal.
Readers of the WIIS will probably be pleased to see frequent mentions to the transport hierarchy and to Llwybr Newydd (the Wales Transport Strategy). The circular economy is also a significant beneficiary of focus, with support earmarked for repair and reuse-type projects.
Other sectors receiving considerable attention are housing (particularly with regard to decarbonisation efforts), biodiversity and natural capital, and the revitalisation of town centres.
In the foreword to the WIIS, Rebecca Evans AS says: “Instead of thinking first ‘what infrastructure should we invest in?’ the question must be ‘what should investment in our infrastructure enable?’.
It’s exactly the right way to structure the discussion. Wales’ infrastructure needs to enable, empower, support and safeguard. In a complex world, replete with wicked problems, we need to create a framework that provides us with the principles and guidance to deliver long-term improvements across every facet of society.
The Well-being of Future Generations Act is that framework; and this Infrastructure Strategy is a worthy complement to it.
David Clubb is Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales, but wasn’t involved in the report.
Some key Welsh policies referred to within WIIS:
- Net Zero Wales
- Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan
- Infrastructure Finance Plan
- Future Wales
- Corporate Asset Management Strategy (unpublished)
- Wales Procurement Policy Statement
- Well-being of Future Generations Act
- Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Bill
- Economic resilience and reconstruction mission
- Decarbonising existing homes in Wales (report)
- Llwybr Newydd (transport strategy)
- Environment Act (Wales)
- National Strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management in Wales
- Clean Air Plan for Wales
- Beyond recycling (circular economy strategy)
- Prosperity for all (economic action plan)
- Active Travel Act
- A vision for culture in Wales
- Welsh Language strategy