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Why should we have a National Infrastructure Commission?

Date: 9/09/2013 | Author: Paul Sanderson

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Recently, the Labour Party commissioned Olympic Delivery Authority chairman Sir John Armitt to make recommendations on infrastructure. Paul Sanderson looks inside his report for the highlights

After the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the former Olympic Delivery Authority chairman Sir John Armitt was commissioned by the Labour Party in October last year, to undertake an independent review of long term infrastructure planning in the UK.

He was tasked with looking at whether a new institutional structure can be established that better enables the long term decision making necessary for strategic infrastructure planning and how political consensus can be forged around these decisions.

In this report, Sir John and his fellow members of the commission, call for the establishment of an independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs and monitor the plans developed by Governments to meet them.

With population growth and the impacts of climate change on the horizon, the report argues that a new approach is needed for these challenges.

It makes core recommendations aimed at achieving cross-party political consensus, public support and investor certainty for long-term decisions on the UK’s energy, water, waste, flood defences and telecommunications needs.

These recommendations are:

  • A new independent National Infrastructure Commission to look 25 to 30 years ahead at the evidence for the UK’s future needs across all significant national infrastructure and set clear priorities
  • This National Infrastructure Assessment would be carried out every 10 years and include extensive research and consultations with the public, local government, NGOs, regulators and other interested groups or individuals
  • A Parliamentary vote on the evidence-based infrastructure priorities would have to take place within six months of their publication, to avoid delays
  • Within 12 months of this vote, Government departments would have to form detailed 10 year Sector Plans of how they will deliver and fund work towards these priorities
  • Parliament would then vote on these 10 year plans and the permanent National Infrastructure Commission would scrutinise the ability of these plans to meet the 25-30 year national priorities and report to Parliament annually on their delivery.

Sir John Armitt said: “Over the last 40 years, UK infrastructure has fallen behind the rest of the world and is increasingly struggling to cope with the demands we make of it.

“An infrastructure fit for the future must now be a national priority alongside education and health and a new, independent National Infrastructure Commission is a way of delivering this improvement with the vital support of the public and politicians of all parties.

“London 2012 proved we are capable of planning and delivering complex and innovative infrastructure projects with local and national cross-party support. We did it right for the Games and now we need to apply the lessons we’ve learned to other areas and services we need to improve to cope with the challenges ahead.

“We have the Victorian pioneers to thank for the infrastructure that has underpinned the quality of life for our generation. It is up to us to lay the ground for the next pioneers who will create the innovative systems and services that will serve future generations.”

The report highlights the lack of national strategic planning by successive governments with the UK’s population expected to reach 73 million by 2035.

Also, despite efficiency improvements as a result of the privatisations of national infrastructure since the 1980s, this has also led to fragmentation and a blurring of accountability for creating sufficient infrastructure capacity over the long term.

It also criticises the policy uncertainty that currently, and has existed, with a lack of clarity over the UK’s long term needs making it difficult to sustain cross-party political consensus on controversial infrastructure projects. This has led to reversals of policy and prevarication over decision making.

Changes in Government’s following general elections, and then changes in policy, has also generated a “stop-start” approach to investment in infrastructure.

The idea of the National Infrastructure Commission is that it would build on the 2008 Planning and Infrastructure Act and the establishment of Infrastructure UK (IUK) in 2010 within the Treasury.

The report notes that the majority view of those consulted by the commission is that the 2008 Planning Act and now overseen by the Planning Inspectorate was a significant step forward and given that it is less than five years old, should be given time to bed down with further overhaul being of limited benefit.

But there are issues with the application procedures and it says “a number of issues continue to be reserved for other bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive”.

Respondents to the call for evidence also praised the role of IUK in raising the debate around infrastructure and the National Infrastructure Plan was praised for providing at least some indication of Government’s priorities and a pipeline of projects.

However, there was criticism that IUK’s position with the Treasury means that its remit is constrained, and is compromised by the lack of detailed policy conclusions within Government Departments.

By looking at similar bodies to the proposed National Infrastructure Commission in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the Canadian province of Ontario, as well as the Bank Of England, Office of Budget Responsibility, Committee on Climate Change, and National Institute for Health Care and Excellence, that these independent bodies provide clarity of remit, expertise to ease the political pressure around decision making, and can provide leadership.

As a result, it advises that the National Infrastructure Commission should be set up by Act of Parliament along the lines of the Committee on Climate Change with funding set for ten years and appointments made based on areas of expertise and interest covered.

Reaction:

David Gauke MP, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury: “The review is an epitaph to Labour’s failure over 13 years to address the infrastructure challenges Britain faces.

“This Government is clearing up the mess, creating an economy for hardworking people by investing in the biggest programme of infrastructure since the Victorian era.”

Ed Balls MP, Shadow Chancellor: “For decades successive Governments have all too often ducked and delayed the vital decisions we need to make on Britain’s long-term infrastructure. This excellent report sets out a clear blueprint for how we can better identify, plan and deliver our infrastructure needs.

“The Olympics showed what can be done when there is cross-party consensus and a sense of national purpose. Now we need that same drive and spirit to plan ahead for the next thirty years and the needs of future generations.”

Katja Hall, CBI chief policy director: “The World Economic Forum downgrade of UK infrastructure competitiveness sends a clear message that we need to rise above the parliamentary cycle to take some important strategic decisions to plan for the next 30 years.

“An independent Commission would ensure that politicians could no longer duck the difficult infrastructure questions which our long-term economic prosperity depends on.

“But we do need to make sure that if an independent Commission were to be introduced it wouldn’t cut across decisions already underway, like the Davies review of aviation.

“This report is a thoughtful contribution to the debate about the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs and should be considered by all political parties.”

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