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The Policy Ask with James Heath: “The UK has been very slow on decarbonising buildings”

The chief executive of the National Infrastructure Commission on remote working, devolution and the need to accelerate green energy projects.

By Spotlight

James Heath is chief executive at the National Infrastructure Commission. He was previously a civil servant, working as director of digital infrastructure at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), with responsibility for broadband, mobile and telecoms policy. Before this, he was director of policy at the BBC.

How do you start your working day?

By following a routine. I’m not a huge fan of early mornings so having a pattern helps – listen to the Today programme, have breakfast at a local café and then walk to the office (most days), which is a precious moment to gather my thoughts and think about the day ahead.

What has been your career high?

The impact we had at DCMS on UK telecoms policy. In less than 12 months we developed and published the government’s strategy to kick-start the deployment of gigabit-capable broadband and catch up with our international competitors. The strategy and its implementation have helped to reshape the telecoms market and accelerated network roll-out from 5 per cent in 2018 to 72 per cent today. It worked because ministers, the regulator Ofcom and policy officials had a single, clear view of what we wanted to achieve, designed policies and regulation of sufficient scale to move the dial, and then had a relentless focus on delivery.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Becoming chief executive of the National Infrastructure Commission in the middle of the first Covid-19 lockdown. It was a daunting experience to come into a new organisation and try to run it over Zoom! If starting a new job is getting from zero to 70 miles per hour, then I probably got to 50 miles per hour in about the same time as you would under normal conditions. But getting to 70 miles per hour is impossible without meeting people face to face and building new networks. You can spend social capital online, but it’s very hard to build it.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Don’t over-plan and agonise about every decision. Planning is clearly important for many things – like building infrastructure projects – but for other decisions, just start, experiment, fail fast and get better through experience. Push yourself to do things you find uncomfortable (public speaking, in my case) and keep moving: it’s easy to get comfortable in organisations/roles, particularly good ones, and to think that the problems you are working on are the only ones that matter.

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[See also: The Policy Ask with Alastair Campbell: “Boris Johnson and his kind should never be allowed near public life again”]

Which political figure inspires you?

I’ll avoid the obvious choices here and pick probably the most underrated US president of the 20th century: Lyndon B Johnson. While President Johnson is largely remembered and rightly criticised for his Vietnam policy, what his government achieved in domestic policy is remarkable in its vision, scope and audacity: Medicare and Medicaid, civil and voting rights, clean air and water, and Head Start (a programme for preschool-aged children from low-income families) to name a few. Some of Johnson’s tactics certainly leave much to be desired. But if politics is about solving the hardest, often hidden, problems and making people’s lives better, then, 50 years out, the Great Society reforms still look inspirational.

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What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

I’ll stay in the infrastructure lane for these questions! We are now seeing big strides forward on devolution with the multi-year transport settlements, the “trailblazer deals” for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and the commitment to move to single, flexible budgets for the combined authorities. If we want to move the dial on regional economic growth, then a significant and sustained shift of power, responsibility and funding to local areas is a necessary condition. That’s where the information and understanding lies on how to fix problems.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

We need to move away from the “start-stop” approach that has characterised infrastructure policy and capital programmes for too long. It creates delay, deters investment and adds to costs. Governments must develop stronger staying power and focus on fewer, better-targeted infrastructure initiatives. The commission’s latest assessment of the state of infrastructure highlighted positive progress towards nationwide coverage of gigabit broadband and continued growth in renewable electricity, both of which have enjoyed a stable policy environment. But, in contrast, there have been slower advances in the installation of low-carbon heating solutions or securing a sustainable balance of water supply and demand – areas which have been subject to a more short-term and changeable policy approach.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to the government accelerating the consenting process for major infrastructure projects by designating an updated set of national policy statements (NPSs) covering energy, transport and water resources. These might sound like rather dry, technical documents but NPSs underpin the planning regime by establishing the need case for infrastructure. The infrastructure planning system is currently too slow, partly as a result of out-of-date statements, and these delays mean uncertainty for scheme promoters, investors and communities while decisions are made.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

Moving to low-carbon ways of heating buildings is probably the single biggest net-zero challenge facing the UK. Fossil fuels account for around 90 per cent of the energy used in heating, almost all of which is gas. While the UK is an international leader when it comes to decarbonising its power sector, progress on decarbonising buildings has been very slow. We can certainly learn policy lessons from other northern European countries when it comes to decarbonising heating. Their experience shows us that with a mix of effective regulation and policies implemented consistently over time, rapid change can happen.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

Supporting the 50-gigawatt offshore wind ambition by 2030 will require at least 17 new energy transmission projects to be approved within the next four years in England and Wales. This is a more than fourfold increase in annual electricity transmission project consents from historic rates. The planning regime must change to cope with the volume and complexity of infrastructure projects coming its way. The government has set out an action plan to accelerate consent timelines, some of which will require legislative change. We have also made recommendations to the government on how to go further in reforming the system. The time for concerted action is now.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Michael Houlihan: “The skills gap is very real, very big and threatens to hold the economy back”]

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