Key to the success of the UK’s first National Infrastructure Assessment is for the Commission to look beyond the views of the academics and assorted experts to understand what the public thinks about the big issues we’re thinking about. Running public consultations is one way of doing this (and we’ve just launched our third as part of work on the Assessment). Yet to reach a truly representative cross-section of the population, we’re aware we need to go further.

The National Infrastructure Commission has worked with BritainThinks on a project to understand the public’s knowledge and views about infrastructure. As part of this, we held citizen workshops in Nottingham, London and Colne in Lancashire to probe a variety of different topics, following this up with some national polling. You can read the full report on our website or watch this video of the discussions.

There are three takeaways which I found particularly interesting:

  • First, results from the workshops found that the term ‘infrastructure’ prompts only limited associations – namely, with transport. Few participants mentioned waste or energy. No-one mentioned water, flooding or waste water services. So, while policy-makers and the expert community have a pretty clear sense of what constitutes ‘economic infrastructure,’ exactly what this includes needs to be communicated more clearly to the public.
  • Second, people understand that infrastructure helps to support their quality of life. While ‘digital communications’ can sound like jargon, participants recognised that they depend on the connectivity it provides to keep in touch with those they care about. They were also aware of how much they depend on the physical connectivity which good transport links enable. 81% of survey participants felt that ‘Good infrastructure is essential for people to have a good quality of life’.
  • Third, both workshop and survey participants considered disruption of less importance when planning infrastructure than other factors – such as the environment, resilience or leaving a legacy behind for future generations. Only 6% of those surveyed thought that disruption should be the most important factor for the Assessment to consider, compared to 19% who felt it should be resilience. IpsosMORI’s latest Global Infrastructure Index results, published today, suggests that the British outlook differs from the global and advanced economy averages on these two factors.

Separately, the IpsosMORI Global Infrastructure Index’s headline finding is that rail is now the public’s number one infrastructure priority, with housing second. The CBI has engaged with the public for the first time in its annual Infrastructure Survey, also published today, and they have found, among other findings, that three quarters of the British public believe infrastructure delivery is unsatisfactory.

The points I outlined above are just a few of the range of interesting insights which have come out of this work and I encourage you to take a look – especially if you have an interest in understanding public perceptions of a particular area of infrastructure.

We’ll now be running a second phase to this social research to home in on the issues we’ve set out in our Assessment. This further underlines our commitment to explore and test out our ideas with the public in order to produce a National Infrastructure Assessment that is informed by public opinion.

Siddharth Varma is a policy adviser at the Commission.