Getting the governance right is vital to building an infrastructure that works for all, says the University of Ulster’s Professor Greg Lloyd.

The infrastructure zeitgeist

Infrastructure is a real buzz word in contemporary political and economic debates. In an extended economic depression – reference to infrastructure has become ubiquitous in political, policy and media circles. Yet, infrastructure is a contested concept and involves a complicated portfolio of facilities and projects; infrastructure may be physical or virtual; visible or invisible; hard or soft. The governance of infrastructure can often be quite confused – as demonstrated by Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, infrastructure agendas reflect the very complex and fragmented architecture of a centralised state with 11 government departments each with distinct infrastructure priorities. The overall context is set out in the Programme for Government 2011 – 2015 which provides the strategic economic and social ambitions of the Northern Ireland Executive. Its Economic Strategy and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland 2008 – 2018 establish the priority areas for investment in infrastructure. Infrastructure is also bound up with, for example, the Peace Programme and INTERREG arrangements for addressing issues associated with cross-border matters – such as the provision of enterprise facilities, a gas pipeline, telecommunications, transport, marine safety, oil, environmental protection and renewable energy projects.

Strategic investment

In practice, strategic infrastructure is primarily, but not exclusively, the bailiwick of departments such as the Department for Regional Development and the Department for Social Development. The former has responsibility for regional planning, roads, transport and water infrastructure – and addresses issues associated, for example, with flood prevention infrastructure. The latter addresses infrastructure for urban regeneration and community development purposes – including comprehensive development; town centre regeneration; environmental improvement/public realm schemes; area based master-planning; Urban Regeneration Companies (e.g. ILEX); neighbourhood renewal; community asset management; and, reflecting a relatively more social agenda, voluntary and community sector infrastructure.

Moreover, the Strategic Investment Board provides practical support to the public sector in the delivery of the various infrastructure projects – including procurement, finance and regulation and strategic planning. Here, large scale infrastructure projects include, for example, the Titanic Complex in Belfast and multiplex arrangements for the “Legen-derry” UK City of Culture.

Greg Lloyd on infrastructure

Arrangements for infrastructure, however, will likely become even more convoluted with the on-going implementation of the Review of Public Administration.

Looking to the future

Initially launched by the Northern Ireland Executive in June 2002 to review the arrangements for the accountability, development, administration and delivery of public services in Northern Ireland, and important next phase includes replacing the existing 26 local councils with 11 “super-councils” by April 2015. This process will involve the re-democratisation of local government in Northern Ireland and a technocratic devolution of responsibilities from central government departments. This will progressively include the transfer of statutory land use planning, regeneration, local economic development and tourism, some roads responsibility, local sports facilities and rural development. Over and above this, there is the new statutory duty of community planning and a new power of well-being.

Originating as a French military term, infra-structure relates to the essential supporting installations necessary to support an operation or system. Infrastructure, then, is not simply about engineering projects or connecting facilities but concerns the future form of society – factoring in the precise requirements of demography, technology, connectivity, resilience and sustainability. Conceptualising and implementing an appropriate governance infrastructure is the real challenge for Northern Ireland.