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Is a National Infrastructure Commission the answer?

Is a National Infrastructure Commission the answer?

🕔03.Feb 2015

Labour has set out what it calls describes as an ambitious vision for Britain’s infrastructure, reports Kevin Johnson. Ed Balls announced that legislation to set up an independent National Infrastructure Commission will be in Labour’s first Queen’s Speech after the election. Alex Burrows later gives his expert view. 

A draft Bill has already been published with the aim of fast-tracking through Parliament this year. The Shadow Chancellor also published  a draft remit for the new Commission which sets out 10 National Infrastructure Goals which Britain should achieve over the coming decades.

A National Infrastructure Commission was first proposed in a report commissioned by Labour and written by Sir John Armitt, the former Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority.

The Commission, whose Chair will be appointed on a cross-party basis, will ensure Britain is able to better identify, plan and deliver infrastructure for future generations says Labour.

Speaking at the UK Infrastructure Conference, Ed Balls MP, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, said:

For too long successive governments have ducked and delayed the vital decisions we need to take for the long term. As a country we have got to stop kicking big decisions into the long grass.

We need an ambitious vision to ensure Britain has a transport network that spreads prosperity to every part of the country, is the best place in the world to do scientific research and meets the challenge of climate change.

Infrastructure investment is vital to boosting growth and productivity in a way which raises living standards for the many, not just a few at the top. That’s why it is a key part of Labour’s economic plan.

Alex Burrows, a technical director at Atkins Transportation and Infrastructure Ambassador for BPS Birmingham, comments on the proposals. 

The Labour Party this morning set out its proposal for a National Infrastructure Commission that would enable major infrastructure projects to be driven forward and get delivered using an independent body, which could improve decision-making, build consensus and take a long-term strategic view of what was important, rather than being tied up in politics.

Those of us with experience of the debate over High Speed 2, which is now six years in and still two years away from seeing shovels hit the ground, would be forgiven for automatically reaching for the champagne to celebrate this proposal.  Too often, it has seemed that strategically significant projects have been either completely lost, watered down to mediocrity, or botched in their delivery leading the population at large to believe that this country does not, and should not, do major projects.

But the rub to that is the fact that London sees major projects frequently being well-delivered and funded – look at Crossrail for example, the stations and surrounding areas at King’s Cross and St Pancras stations and the huge scale of works now at London Bridge station, alongside the rate of major development across the capital.  Perhaps our attention should be drawn to conflating that with the recent political appetite for ‘rebalancing the economy’?

A major focus of this Commission would be to enable large-scale development and ensure it is coordinated, so supporting major transport and utilities works to support the required housing developments across the country.  It would seem that between the lines, this would be a solution to the problem that outside of London there is not as much appetite for major developments due to a lack of confidence in long-term policy and planning.  Look at the High Speed 2 debate to understand why it has taken so long for the momentum to get behind Birmingham – the Government has allowed a negative debate (with relatively little support and sometimes minimal credibility) to create uncertainty over nationally-significant and desperately-needed infrastructure development.

Now that certainty has come to investment in high speed rail, we have seen the supporting work and investment come in and bring confidence, inward investment and positive signs that real progress is at last happening.  But it shouldn’t have taken so much time and effort by so many other people to win that battle.  That is why a National Infrastructure Commission could be a very good thing.

But as always, the devil is in the detail.  With independence, such a Commission could run the risk of either being stymied by a Government that did not agree with it, or else lose credibility if such a Government were to emasculate it or fill it with cronies.  Ed Balls made it clear that the real value is in building and maintaining a cross-party consensus over what national infrastructure development is needed for the next 20-30 years – given all three major political parties built a cross-party consensus on High Speed 2 to give it momentum (with the exception of a few individuals, including a certain Shadow Chancellor) one might ask whether this Commission would have enough bite to drive forward the difficult projects that are a hallmark of major infrastructure.

Overall, I think such a body is important.  Major infrastructure projects often seem to develop with their own characters, gaining particular support and then succeeding or not on the basis of grade of support rather than more objective measures such as real long-term value and benefits.  The quality of debate and the quality of long-term planning needs a strong element of objective steer and assessment with a body with real political clout and ability to make things happen.  This is especially true of the projects away from the capital city where the national media and commentators pay less attention but which are even more important as a result of that historical indifference.  Perhaps the Commission could begin its work by showing its mettle and taking on some of these difficult projects as quickly as possible to prove just how much we needed it?

Alex Burrows is a technical director at Atkins Transportation and Infrastructure Ambassador for BPS Birmingham, the body which represents, connects and promotes the business, professional and financial services sector in Greater Birmingham. 

Image: Sir John Armitt, (c) Politics Home

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