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Opinion

Why Wales’ new infrastructure strategy is worth getting excited about

21 Dec 2021 4 minute read
National Cycle Network Route 4, near Swansea, Wales, UK. Picture by rvsrvs (CC BY-SA 3.0).

David Clubb

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.

The New Zealand draft infrastructure strategy clearly links infrastructure with well-being

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:


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Argol Fawr
Argol Fawr
11 months ago

David. Just a suggestion?…

Conciseness …
the quality of being short and clear, and expressing what needs to be said without unnecessary words.

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
11 months ago

I’m an old cynic me – lots of plans and piles of paper.
Another lesson in inertia.

CJPh
CJPh
11 months ago

I sincerely hope that my pessimism on this is unfounded, but this focus, despite claiming to seek to better the lives of the citizenry, looks like it will further emiserate the poorest in our society. It looks like one giant virtue signal with very little substance (possibly; again, hope I’m wrong). Circular economy and sustainability = richer people afford antique, upcuycled and retro items, poorer people make do with broken crap. Wellbeing =MY wellbeing. Awareness = PR. Arts and culture = cash for graphic designers who make stuff that conforms to a social agenda. Green/environmental policy = scientism instead of… Read more »

Chris Parry
Chris Parry
11 months ago
Reply to  CJPh

Your pessimism is completely founded! Not sure where you live, but this is all well and good for people living in South Wales and The Valleys, but that’s about it. Piles of paper, well meaning words and not a lot else. This government has failed the people of Wales on so many levels!

Chris Parry
Chris Parry
11 months ago

Sorry David, this may well fit into how City/Town life can be improved, but it completely misses the point on how life in Rural Wales will benefit. As someone else had pointed out, this is all bluster and cowtails to what the COP26 was aiming to achieve. Suggest someone speaks to us in the rural areas to get a reality check. A Roads Review Report was recently produced by Dr Lynn Sloman who is an anti roads campaigner. All the suggestions in the report are about how to stop roads being built and not how people and Businesses in rural… Read more »

hdavies15
hdavies15
11 months ago
Reply to  Chris Parry

I may be a pessimist, or even a cynic, but I find your comment so relevant to the grim reality in which we exist. A new version of the Road (back) to Serfdom. That’s how most of our struggling wage earners would view it especially if sited away from one of the main arteries of Wales.

Chris Parry
Chris Parry
11 months ago
Reply to  hdavies15

Thank you for your support. Sadly many of these reports and reviews are carried out by people who live in cities where they seem to apply a ‘one size fits all’ model. A good example is that the Roads Review wants to impose a charge for anyone using a road that runs through our village (population 600)! If they want to start making a dent on CO2 emissions, perhaps they ought to introduce such a scheme in Cardiff or some of the larger towns and cities in South Wales. But then again, that might make them unpopular and of course… Read more »

David Clubb
11 months ago

I’d like to thank all who took the time to comment on my article. @Arogl Fawr – noted; my enthusiasm propelled me, perhaps to lengthy for some! @John Ball – I hope that the outcomes of the plan will prove you wrong (and I will spend some of my own time and effort to that end), but it is (of course) no guarantee! @CJPh – one of the most impressive things about the document for me was its emphasis on social justice, something that strongly aligns with my own priorities. Like John, I hope that the outcomes will prove your… Read more »

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