Can the UK learn from Australia’s approach to integrated infrastructure planning and funding?

By on 15/08/2022 | Updated on 15/08/2022
Photo by Steve Weir:

The forced resignation of a Prime Minister and the resulting powerplay in Westminster are only the tip of the iceberg of the problems the UK is facing at the present time. From the growing cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel prices, wider impacts of the war in Ukraine, to the affordability challenges of ’levelling up’ the country, the challenges facing UK Government are both wide and deep. And all of this is happening at a time when it has been made abundantly clear that the climate crisis now presents the most urgent challenge of our generation.

Of course, the current political upheaval aside, the problems of economic stagnation and tackling climate change are not UK-only problems. Indeed, they are shared across the globe. In reality, for most developed countries, the infrastructure sector is not only key to driving economic growth but also responsible in itself for a very significant percentage of national carbon emissions. As such, it is useful to observe how other countries are working to develop infrastructure that meets the needs of local communities, whilst integrating with national goals and objectives such as net zero targets.

As a policy advisor for the UK’s civil service, New South Wales’ public service and in commercial consultancy, I have provided advice on planning system reform to ministers, independent infrastructure planning bodies, government agencies, and business leaders. In my experience, there are some interesting examples of best practice on infrastructure planning within Australia that could provide helpful insights on how to balance national, regional and local demands when creating new infrastructure – particularly in relation to the empowerment of local authorities and the infrastructure spending power of mayors.

There are certainly many differences between Australia and the UK. Despite sharing a Westminster-style central government, the framework in Australia is a federation of states and territories, with states predominately holding the power and decision-making powers on funding on regional delivery.  In this scenario, the national government’s role is primarily advisory. There are however relatable lessons and examples between the two countries.

Regional decision-making certainly has its advantages. The Australian experience demonstrates the positive impact of integrating strategic transport, land use and infrastructure planning with ample funding and assurance mechanisms that meet the needs and aspirations of local businesses and communities: crucial for levelling up and boosting local/regional economic growth.

Australia’s experience of aligning plans

While the current UK Government has committed to further sub-regional delegation of powers in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill currently progressing through Parliament, there remains some debate about whether the scale of delegation of powers and funding will be sufficient to sufficiently realise ambitions for levelling up. As per the Australian model, aligning transport, land use and infrastructure planning regional/local levels in the UK has the potential to make an enduring impact with the right level of investment.

The Australian states of South Australia and New South Wales provide helpful examples of the strength of truly integrating land use and infrastructure planning, with effective funding power. For example, since 2013, South Australia has developed an integrated transport and land use plan in concert with a strategic infrastructure plan, while New South Wales has gone further with a record infrastructure funding pipeline, secured through asset recycling, prioritised to meet the objectives of the integrated plan.

The power of integration can be most clearly seen through the decisions to invest in rail projects to service new population and economic growth in Sydney’s western suburbs. At first glance, this investment decision fails to meet traditional cost-benefit ratio assessments, i.e. how can you realise travel time savings to an as-yet non-existent population? As an alternative, by considering development through the lens of long-term economic and spatial planning, decision-makers in the Australian government, the Treasury and the Cabinet took into account ambitions to better distribute population and economic growth across a large metropolitan city region, rather than considering the infrastructure investment in isolation.

Assuring public spending through independent infrastructure bodies

Quite rightly, when considering increases to powers and funding, it is essential that public funds are allocated and spent appropriately. In this there must be accountability. It is clear that the assurance and accountability requirements covering the UK’s growing number of combined authorities need to be developed to ensure that they can support with vast infrastructure and service delivery funding envelopes in mind.

In 2008, the Australian federal government introduced an independent body, Infrastructure Australia, to provide assurance on infrastructure priorities and of business cases for projects across the Federation. Similarly, New South Wales created Infrastructure NSW, to ensure at a more local level that spending decisions demonstrate value-for-money for taxpayers when measured against the government’s long-term economic and social priorities. In a crucial extension, Infrastructure NSW was given legislative backing for its role.

We now have a situation in Australia where each state and territory has introduced independent infrastructure bodies. Having an assurance function that has internalised the local land use and transport planning priorities over a 30-year horizon provides comfort to taxpayers that decisions are being made for the longer-term good. Particularly in relation to linking progress on infrastructure with tackling the climate crisis, which will outlast any change in government. Independent bodies like Infrastructure NSW provide confidence, to citizens and businesses alike, that policy issues relating to infrastructure that extend beyond electoral cycles are addressed consistently.

Could this be an example of where the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in the UK could further evolve alongside the sub-regional delegation of powers envisioned in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill? As the Australian examples show, establishing regional Infrastructure bodies can enable local needs, priorities and particularly community requirements to be more fully accounted for in the delivery of projects.

As with all countries working to restore and grow their economies, there are plenty of lessons and experiences to share between the UK and Australia. Indeed, their shared historical and cultural ties offer an easy segue into a contemporary discussion on national infrastructure and planning policy. Just as the Australian experience with sub-national delegation of powers can be insightful for the UK, so too the UK’s focused drive on decarbonising its infrastructure and economy can offer examples of changes that Australian policymakers could embed into their planning and infrastructure investment decisions.

Ultimately, delegating decision-making on spending for people and places to the optimum level offers rich potential for success and economic growth. Carefully aligning transport and land use with infrastructure investments regionally can significantly improve outcomes for people and businesses. All with a proportionate level of independent accountability and assurance, of course.

Graham Pointer is Strategic Advisory Growth Director at WSP, one of the UK’s leading engineering professional services consultancies.

To find out more about how WSP’s Strategic Advisory team is supporting clients across the UK, or to get in touch, please visit our Strategic Advisory webpage here.

About Partner Content

This content is brought to you by a Global Government Forum, Knowledge Partner.