Infrastructure and public opinion in Britain and across the world
Whether it be existing systems failing or new projects stalling, infrastructure tends to make the news when things go wrong. In Britain, problems with air traffic control, system outages, crumbling concrete, sewerage discharges and disruptive emergency fixes linger in the memory alongside seemingly inevitable cost overruns and delays to new projects like HS2.
Little wonder that the public think there is substantial room for improvement in the country’s performance on infrastructure while also being sceptical about the prospects for this happening for real. But is this a uniquely British problem, or par for the course?
Global research company Ipsos has run seven Global Infrastructure Index surveys of global public opinion in the period since 2016, partnering with the Global Infrastructure Investor Association since 2019. The benefit of a global survey is that it allows us to contextualise public attitudes towards infrastructure in one country by comparing them with those in other ones.
This matters because an infrastructure proposition with consumer and citizen backing will have a huge headstart, while one counter to the zeitgeist will have to work harder. The importance of people and culture is also evident in a recent study which found infrastructure to be more expensive in Britain (and America) than in most other places due to “citizen voice”, labelled a “nimby tax” by the Financial Times. Local objections and protracted reviews add financial cost which in turn make them less likely to get built and more controversial, creating a vicious circle.
While having much in common with citizens elsewhere, this year’s Index shows that Britons are comparatively more positive about digital infrastructure and flood defences, but less positive about rail and water supply and sewerage, reflecting lived experience and of course media and political attention (and driving a fondness for renationalisation). They prioritise investment in water supply and renewables (wind energy and solar) more than anything else— strongly of the view that infrastructure can deliver a ‘double dividend’ of environmental as well as economic benefits.
The latest index found declining satisfaction with infrastructure in several advanced economies as well as Britain including Germany. There, Stuttgart’s station, advertised as proof of the state’s engineering prowess, is late and over-budget. Its fate has been like that of Berlin’s new airport, to Crossrail and HS2 in Britain.
Sentiment isn’t easily turned around not least because it tends to look both ways. For example, two-thirds of Britons think infrastructure isn’t being built quickly enough but a similar proportion agree that local communities’ views on plans for infrastructure should be heard properly even if it means delays. These are not uncommon sentiments around the world, and are likely to reflect a deficit of trust.
Delays can of course be as democratic as they are debilitating. What’s needed is proportionality. Balances and trade-offs need to be struck and adjusted to reflect changing priorities. In Britain, as is the case globally, citizens are more sensitive to rising costs then they were two years ago but, although the gap has narrowed, they remain more likely to say they prioritise the environmental impacts of decisions about infrastructure than economic ones.
The British are more ‘maybe’ than nimby or yimby. Past editions of the Global Infrastructure Index and other surveys have found an in-built preference for maintaining and repairing infrastructure over building anew, and for improving social rather than economic infrastructure. Making the case for infrastructure is very difficult but not impossible.
The national narrative around improving infrastructure seems to focus much more on jeopardy than opportunity, and this is probably both cause and effect of public opinion.
Some more success stories would help, what is happening with HS2 won’t. Time to get (re)building.