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National Infrastructure Commission – a Q&A

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

Labour has called for cross-party support for a national infrastructure commission. PSE asked Nick Baveystock, director general of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), for his views.

Q) What benefits would an Infrastructure Commission bring to the UK?

Strategy alone will not deliver improvements to the delivery of UK infrastructure. Effective implementation of a strategy is also key – and this demands political stability and a consistent vision.

The mismatch between the long-term nature of strategic infrastructure planning and short-term political cycles has a negative influence. An Independent Infrastructure Commission, detached from party political constraints, could help to ensure long term plans stand above political fault lines.

Q) How can cross-party consensus on this be achieved?

Sir John Armitt is proposing a process that puts the onus on an Infrastructure Commission to conduct a very wide consultation across civil society as part of the process that produces a draft National Infrastructure Plan (NIP). The NIP is then subject to a parliamentary vote.

So it is a combination of putting politics just at the start of the process, then increasing the authority of the NIP. Future parliaments could always try to unpick it, but there is a political cost attached to that.

Q) How important is continuity of policy to investment and growth?

Continuity of policy is vital to investment and growth. It reduces risk and brings about more certainty among the investment community. It also provides greater visibility of demand, which allows investors and the supply chain to make strategic investments to support the market and increase their efficiency.

Q) The transfer of powers from the Infrastructure Planning Commission to the new Infrastructure Planning Unit only took place last year – would creating a new body risk disruption?

No – an IIC and the IPU are doing different things. The IPU is about granting consent; the IIC is about setting strategy.

Q) To what extent are long delays currently holding back infrastructure delivery?

Some decisions are made quickly and effectively, however there are unfortunately some well-publicised examples of where lengthy delays are holding back delivery – the ongoing debate around increasing aviation capacity is an obvious example, and slow progress in the energy sector is another. The delivery of new electricity generation capacity is arguably the most important national strategic requirement covered by the NIP.

The scale of investment required to meet this challenge has been estimated at over £100bn, and Government has outlined a range of strategies designed to support investment across a variety of technologies. Whilst the construction industry is gearing up to meet this demand, government’s EMR package will underpin this transition, providing investors with the confidence and certainty to invest in low carbon technologies. The arrangements for implementing EMR are currently before Parliament and we urge prompt progress to secure its passage.

Q) What sort of responsibilities would the ICE like to see in a new Commission?

We believe an Infrastructure Commission should be created as a non-departmental public body tasked with advising government on the content of the NIP. The updating of the NIP would be a statutory obligation placed on ministers.

The Commission should also have an audit function. We suggest three distinct stages of interaction between a Commission and government: Establishment of high level goals and outcomes, development of the NIP and audit of implementation and performance.

Q) Is it really possible to take the politics out of infrastructure?

No, not entirely – particularly for major projects, which can directly impact people. More broadly, infrastructure provides a universal service that all citizens demand and has upfront costs that need to be paid back by future users or taxpayers – so it is inherently political. Sir John Armitt has himself been clear that he’s not trying to take the politics out of infrastructure - rather he’s trying to ensure that the political aspect of infrastructure planning is dealt with more effectively. 


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