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Mar 16, 2023 | by Nancy Hey

Infrastructure and quality of life – a paper by the National Infrastructure Commission

The built and natural environment – including housing, energy, digital connectivity, health services and green space – shapes how we live, work and feel.

To explore the relationship between this infrastructure and our wellbeing, the Centre contributed to the National Infrastructure Commission’s Quality of Life discussion paper. As part of the project’s advisory group, we shared our understanding of how policy areas, sectors and organisations can impact national wellbeing, gained through our evidence reviews and sector expertise.

Here, our Executive Director Nancy Hey takes us through the paper and how wellbeing frameworks can help understand and maximise impact on national wellbeing.

In its discussion paper, the Commission defines quality of life as: how happy or satisfied people are with their lives. This includes a range of interrelated factors, which operate at the individual, community and national levels.

A framework for measuring the quality of life objective

As the link between infrastructure and quality of life is indirect (figure 1), the Commission has decided to assess its impact across multiple domains.

Figure 1: A text graphic outlining the impact of the Commission's recommendations. Text reads: 1. The Commission makes a recommendation on transport use. 2. This leads to an improvement in air quality... 3. ...which improves physical and mental health... 4. ...which improves quality of life.

Figure 1: Impact of the Commission’s recommendations. Source: Quality of Life discussion paper, National Infrastructure Commission

To do this, it has developed a new framework that maps outcomes across six of the 10 domains derived from the
ONS Measures of National Wellbeing dashboard, focusing on those domains that directly relate to infrastructure (table 1).

Table 1: The Commisson's Quality of Life Domains. - Domain name: Health; Definition: the impacts of infrastructure services on physical and mental health; Relevant ONS domain(s): Health, Personal Wellbeing. - Domain name: Local and natural surroundings; Definition: The impact of infrastructure design and operation on the local and natural environment; Relevant ONS domain(s): Environment, Where we live now. - Domain name: Connections; Definition: The physical connections (transport networks) and digital connections (fixed and mobile broadband) that link people, communities and businesses; Relevant ONS domain(s): Relationships, What we do, Where we live. - Domain name: Affordability; Definition: The distributional impact of the cost of infrastructure services that domestic consumers pay through bills or fares and the overall cost of infrastructure over time; Relevant ONS domain(s): Personal finance. - Domain name: Comfort and convenience; Definition: Users' experience with infrastructure services including the level of satisfaction derived from these services; Relevant ONS domain(s): Personal wellbeing, Where we live. - Domain name: Employment; Definition: How infrastructure acts as an enabler for patterns of economic activity and therefore access to jobs; Relevant ONS domain(s): What we do.

Table 1: The Commission’s Quality of Life Domains. Source: Quality of Life discussion paper, National Infrastructure Commission

The Commission will apply this framework to its future work, including the second
National Infrastructure Assessment which is due autumn 2023.

Measuring outcomes across multiple domains helps understand how activity contributes to national wellbeing and how its impact can be maximised. For more on this, explore our work with local authorities to develop local wellbeing frameworks and create policy in a way that maximises wellbeing, led by our Head of Implementation and Learning, Joanne Smithson.

Learn how the Canal & River Trust ’s Outcomes Measurement Framework and Report is using a similar approach and framework to build a robust evidence base and determine how its waterways are positively impacting people and communities.

Key findings

Infrastructure impacts quality of life in the UK in different ways:

  • Variation in provision of services and in levels of resilience to hazards contribute to the variation in quality of life across the UK. For example, the provision of clean water and access to health services contributes to physical health, which is a top driver of wellbeing. 
  • Well-designed infrastructure can enhance the local and natural surroundings through good urban design, access to blue and green spaces, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Poorly designed infrastructure can lead to negative impacts on quality of life, for example, biodiversity loss.

UK areas with lower population densities are associated with higher life satisfaction, as indicated by the ONS Quarterly Wellbeing Estimates.

For the Commission, improving quality of life involves improving and maintaining the benefits from using infrastructure and minimising its negative impacts. This work aligns with the UK Government’s Levelling Up programme, and overlaps with the Commission’s objective to support sustainable economic growth across all regions of the UK.

The role of resilience

The Office for National Statistics’ definition of wellbeing, used in the UK’s national wellbeing framework, includes not only how we’re doing but also ‘how sustainable it [wellbeing] is for the future’. 

As such, the capacity to withstand or to recover from difficulty is key to supporting national wellbeing. For the Commission, this means designing effective policies and regulation to help infrastructure sectors prepare for an uncertain future. 

Resilience can be thought of in two ways:

  1. Everyday resilience – short term events like delays or cancellations on public transport which pose a temporary risk to people’s experience.
  2. Serious resilience – large-scale events, such as floods, with substantial and potentially long-term impacts to physical and mental health.

By building both types of resilience within infrastructure, the Commission can improve people’s quality of life.

An example of this approach is Anglian Water’s valuation of the impact of roadworks and flooding. This assessed the impact of these incidents on customers’ subjective wellbeing and assigned a monetary value to these estimates for validation and comparison with existing industry measures, as part of a cost-benefit analysis intended to guide its investment planning.

Want to know more?

For the Commission, quality of life can be measured objectively and subjectively, such as:

We can think of quality of life as feeling good and functioning well.

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