Taking the politics out of infrastructure?

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The need for a more strategic, less political, approach to major infrastructure decisions is gaining support. Sir John Armitt is carrying out a review of the issue for the Opposition whilst the Government has announced that it is looking into making more use of independent expertise in shaping infrastructure policy.

Those calling for a new approach point to a long track record of damaging prevarication and policy reversals on issues like airport capacity and nuclear power. That the UK too often tends to ‘muddle through' rather than invest strategically and consistently for the long-term. EEF is in that camp.

From a manufacturing perspective, quality infrastructure in areas like transport, energy and communications underpins the ability to do business and compete in an increasingly globalised world. It enables firms to source raw materials and components, fuel industrial processes, get products to market and internationalise their operations.

At the heart of the problem is the ability to make and stick to decisions on long-term issues. For a number of years, the UK has repeatedly struggled to forge and sustain a political consensus on issues like airport capacity or investing in our roads. EEF believes an independent infrastructure commission, along the lines being considered by the Armitt Review, could help overcome this issue.

Such a body could institutionalise the benefits of independent analysis and an apolitical perspective that commissions can bring to bear on complex and long-term issues. The Turner Commission, for example, has helped forge a political consensus on pensions' policy. However, for such a body to be acceptable and effective, two key criteria would need to be met.

First, the new body would need to be strictly advisory, with decisions remaining firmly with politicians. Major infrastructure decisions often involve getting the balance right between competing objectives, such as trade-offs between economic and environmental considerations. A lack of legitimacy would hinder rather than help build and sustain a stable approach to controversial issues.

Second, the commission would have to have the right of initiative. It would be hamstrung from tackling politically controversial but pressing issues were it only able to deliver advice at the request of government on an agenda set by the government. To be effective, it would need the power to initiate inquiries into subjects of its own choosing at a time of its own choosing.

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