Andrew Weaver argues that Brexit may lead to a reassessment of the balance between need and impacts of infrastructure.
Brexit presents more questions than it answers. The implications are far reaching, unclear, and some are unknown. For infrastructure, it is now more important than ever that we communicate projects effectively and secure investment.
The need and impact of infrastructure development is always finely balanced, but will it get even more so following Brexit? Let’s sit on the fence a while and look at what might happen.
The infrastructure consent process is likely to remain (pardon the pun) largely as it is, at least in the short term. Since being introduced in 2008 the Development Consent Order (DCO) process has generally been positively received by the infrastructure industry, and the fact that the government has incorporated new types of development into the process suggests that it is moving from strength to strength. The process provides certainty and consistency to the infrastructure industry, commodities that are in short supply at the moment. The last thing any Government will want to do now is introduce more uncertainty to a one of the key economic drivers in the UK.
That said, with a change in Prime Minster there is likely to be some change of policy direction. We should all be used to this as governments come and go on a regular (in political terms) basis and it would be a big surprise and complete about turn if development and infrastructure was put on the back burner. However, ideology and political commitments could result in some specific project casualties.
Indeed these factors are likely to play a big part in the ‘conscious decoupling’ of UK law from EU law. Much of the UK’s environmental protections are derived from the EU, protections that form the basis of the Environmental Impact Assessment process. Whilst many of these protections will be ‘saved’ by the government to ensure safeguards do not just drop away at the point the UK leaves the EU, what will be discarded or amended is likely to be as much a political as legal decision.
The direct result of Brexit is uncertainty about the robustness of the UK economy in the short and medium term. This could increase pressure to ease environmental protections in favour of developments which address the need for new infrastructure to re-orientate our economy for a post-Brexit market and home grown issues such as energy security. Couple this increase with the high turnout at the referendum which demonstrates increased desire to participate in issues that affect local communities, and we could see an increasing tension between the national and local need.
This all means that there will be a renewed focus on the balance between the impacts and need for infrastructure development, leaving decision makers to tread an even more fine line when determining the acceptability of a scheme. Now more than ever we need to have a clear direction for infrastructure in the UK, and ensure its benefits are communicated in a way people can understand and can get behind. If projects are not communicated effectively, if the plans and strategies that sit behind them are not explained and understood, the risk of a public backlash against schemes which are perceived as happening ‘to people’ not ‘for people’ could jeopardise potential investment in the UK.