Natural capital will be incorporated into national infrastructure planning, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
The commission, which is tasked with assessing the UK’s infrastructure needs and recommending how best to meet them, published a discussion document on the impacts of the environment and climate change on infrastructure on 12 June.
It concludes that, if properly planned, infrastructure can “harness the environment to deliver multiple benefits, for instance, through the provision of protected natural habitats and the provision of connecting corridors for species”.
The commission singled out sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) as a good example, because they mitigate flood risk, capture and treat runoff, create habitat and provide amenity benefits. Despite this, successive Westminster governments have been reluctant to mandate SuDS in new developments which has resulted in low take-up.
Green infrastructure more broadly is acknowledged by the commission to be a powerful tool. “The presence of trees in an urban context has been shown to both reduce pollutants in the air and mitigate the negative impacts of noise,” the report says.
However, it warns that environmental changes can also increase the costs of infrastructure. This could be through increasing operation and maintenance costs such as dealing with algal blooms in reservoirs or the need to make roads and railways more resilient to higher temperatures and increased flood risk.
But the natural environment can also reduce the demand for infrastructure too, the report finds.
“Design of infrastructure to work in concert with environmental processes has the potential to contribute positively to the delivery of infrastructure services as well as building the resilience of the infrastructure system itself, particularly in managing flood risk and improving water quality,” it says, advocating catchment management in particular.
But it notes that if infrastructure development is unmanaged it could have a negative impact on water, air quality and noise levels and “lock-in high emissions that may put at risk the ability of the UK to meeting its statutory obligations to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions by 80% by 2050”.
The commission uses the report to float the idea of changing environmental regulations after Brexit. “Many of the environmental standards that have influenced infrastructure over the past 50 years were established by the European Union,” it says. “As the UK leaves the EU there may be an opportunity to revisit some of these standards to ensure that they are well designed, unintended outcomes are avoided, and overall benefits secured.”
The commission’s final assessment, expected to be published for consultation this summer, will set out a strategic 30-year vision and make recommendations on transport, digital, energy, water and wastewater, flood risk and solid waste.
However, it warns that there are likely to be significant changes within the three-decade timescale. “New and improved infrastructure is likely to be needed well before 2050 to cope with more severe flooding and droughts, as well as new hazards such as an increase in extreme temperatures,” it says.