Ministers are failing to develop national infrastructure projects to drive UK growth and help it hit its carbon targets, a report by the independent advisers on infrastructure warned.

Government infrastructure measures are “stuttering” at a time when they need to accelerate, according to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

Sir John Armitt, NIC chair, said: “A further year of prevarication risks losing momentum on critical areas like achieving the statutory net zero target. Rarely has the need for speed been more evident.

Sir John Armitt, ICE President briefs press on the press meeting at Zero Carbon Building, Kowloon Bay. 15JAN16 SCMP/Edward Wong (Photo by Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (Photo: Edward Wong/SCMP)

“This means fewer low-stakes incremental changes and instead placing some bigger strategic bets, backed by public funding where necessary – after all, the risk of delay in addressing climate change is now greater than the risk of over-correction,” he said.

Their annual report says minsters are “off track” to meet targets in a “range of areas” and criticises failures to improve the energy efficiency of homes, improve low-carbon heating solutions or “securing a sustainable balance of water supply and demand”.

The NIC says there is a need for “stronger staying power and focus on fewer, bigger, better-targeted initiatives to deliver the infrastructure needed to meet its long-term goals for economic growth and a lower carbon economy”.

Of the targeted 600,000 heat pumps to be fitted annually by 2028 only 55,000 were fitted in 2021, in contrast to 1.5 million gas boilers, it added.

Efforts to decarbonise the transport sector have also stalled the NIC says. “The Government expects 300,000 public electric vehicle charge points to be in place by 2030, but only 37,000 public charge points are currently installed,” it adds.

“Government continues to expend too much effort on many small scale funding interventions and repeated consultations, trying to maintain optionality in all areas,” it said. “Making small steps forward in all directions will not bring about the scale of change in infrastructure needed.”

It calls for more devolved funding and powers from Whitehall, arguing that more localised approaches to infrastructure development can “better reflect local economic and social priorities and avoid distorted incentives created by pursuing myriad national grants”.

The Commission says funding should be agreed over multi-year periods with combined authorities which should also be allowed greater freedom to raise revenues locally.

It repeats calls for the fast-tracking and streamlining of planning and points out the average project takes around four years to get through the planning system, compared two and a half years, a decade ago.

Ministers also needed to ensure the UK remained internationally competitive so that the private sector enjoys the “certainty it needs to invest,” it said.

Recycling efforts across the country had stagnated it says and rapid action is needed or else key targets surrounding waste sector emissions “will be missed.” Local authority collected waste recycling rates had levelled out during the last decade and “appear well off track” for the Government’s target for 65 per cent recycling by 2035.

“Years of stagnation mean a step change is now required to meet the Government’s own targets on recycling and separate food waste collection,” the report says.

The report says a “greater sense of certainty” around the HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail are necessary.

The NIC’s report comes as a separate investigation by the National Audit Office found that the Government’s decision to delay the High Speed 2 rail line will add massive new costs to the project.

This month ministers announced the delay of the line between Birmingham to Crewe as well as the final stretch into Euston in central London.

The public spending watchdog warned: “The two-year pause in new construction will see spending deferred in the short-term but lead to additional costs and potentially an overall increase in costs in the long-term. This is due to costs associated with stopping and re-starting work, contractual changes, and managing the project for longer.”

The watchdog warns that cost problems at Euston station have grown. Earlier this month HS2 ltd reported in March 2023 that the latest cost estimate for the 10-platform design is £4.8bn, £2.2bn more than its budget.

The NAO said the forecasting tool that HS2 Ltd uses as the basis of its annual cash budgeting with HM Treasury predicted in 2020 that there would be a fall in prices between December 2019 and August 2022 whereas revised forecasts made in 2022 estimated an inflation rate of around 18 per cent.

Gareth Davies, NAO head, said: “Government is once again having to revise plans for Euston HS2. Clearly, the 2020 reset of the station design has not succeeded. The Department of Transport and HS2 Ltd have not been able to develop an affordable scope that is integrated with other activity at Euston, despite their focus on costs and governance since 2020. Recent high inflation has added to the challenge.”

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