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Op-Ed: People want to see the community benefits of infrastructure

GIIA CEO Lawrence Slade, writing for The Times says that ‘people are less concerned about who owns and operates infrastructure as long as they can see the wider community benefits’.

“Around the world billions of people rely on infrastructure, to get them to work, to get food to market, to power their homes and businesses, and to support and provide access to the internet and connect families over thousands of miles.

But infrastructure is under pressure like never before. In every jurisdiction the Global Infrastructure Investor Association (GIIA) is engaged, infrastructure investment and renewal is high on the agenda. In the United States, the National Governors’ Association (NGA), under the chairmanship of Maryland governor Larry Hogan, is leading an initiative to support infrastructure investment at state level. As advisory council members to the NGA, GIIA is pleased to be playing its part in bringing the right players to the table to explore ways to unlock more private-sector investment in US roads, airports, telecoms, water and renewable energy.

European Union president Ursula von der Leyen has set out a vision for a new Green Deal for the EU bloc. This assumes that the private sector will play a significant role in supporting the transition to a carbon-free economy through greenfield and brownfield investment. GIIA looks forward to continued dialogue in Brussels as the details of the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan are developed.

The UK has traditionally been seen as one of the most attractive markets for infrastructure investors – more than one third of all our members’ stakes are in the UK – but the signals from the last government and opposition during 2019 undermined investor confidence. If the new Johnson government wants to leverage the private sector to help deliver its infrastructure ambitions, including meeting net-zero targets, climate resilience and addressing digital connectivity, then that confidence could quickly return. But there is need for clarity around the mechanisms to achieve that.

Although the political and economic context for infrastructure investment varies considerably across the world, there is much commonality around the issues to be addressed. People expect timely, good-quality infrastructure at affordable prices. They are less concerned about who owns and operates infrastructure as long as they are treated fairly and can see the wider community benefits.

In research we published with Ipsos MORI last year, the Global Infrastructure Index questioned 20,000 people from 28 countries on public attitudes to infrastructure; the biggest survey of its kind. The results were clear. Three quarters (76 per cent) of citizens see investment in infrastructure as vital to economic growth, but 60 per cent don’t believe their country is doing enough. Some 64 per cent were comfortable with private investment in infrastructure, if it means the country gets what it needs. While those supportive of foreign investment outnumbered those opposed by 3:1, if it leads to better quality infrastructure. Meanwhile, 59 per cent would prefer technical experts to take decisions on new infrastructure compared to only 21 per cent who believe politicians should mostly take these decisions.

These results reinforce the view that the debate over ownership of our infrastructure distracts from what really matters to the public, which is getting the environmentally friendly, quality and resilient infrastructure countries and communities need.

It is the role of government to champion the mechanisms it chooses to deliver infrastructure renewal and investment, and to create the right framework that works for investors, customers and communities. It is for the private sector to respond by bringing innovation, efficient management, customer-focused service, responsible stewardship and sustained investment. Where those ingredients are in place, countries will make the best progress in tackling the many complex infrastructure challenges ahead.

As the membership body for the leading investors in infrastructure, we will make sure we, and our members, are at the heart of our infrastructure renewal.