In April, we discussed the emerging idea of an independent advisory body on infrastructure. At the time, various ideas were swirling around about how the UK could take some of the politics out of major infrastructure decisions.
Next month will see important milestone in the debate, with the publication of the Armitt Review commissioned by the Labour Party. This makes it a good time to revisit where an independent infrastructure body could add value.
The fundamental case for an infrastructure commission is that the UK would benefit from greater, and more timely, apolitical and expert input on long-term infrastructure issues of national significance. Two of today's current causes célèbres illustrate why.
The longstanding need to make a decision on airport capacity that has been put off till after the next election is exhibit number one. There is considerable merit in seeking an independent, expert view on how much airport capacity we need for the economy and where. The real issue is why has a decision of such national importance, that we have known for some years urgently needs to be made, been put off yet again?
The increasingly public war of words and analysis through the media of High Speed 2 is exhibit number 2. Whilst the business case currently on the table for HS2 is far from compelling, that it could deliver major long-term dividends should not be dismissed out of hand either. The real issue is why such a major, costly and fear-reaching decision has been taken and signed up to by all political parties without a forensic debate around the costs, benefits and alternatives beforehand?
In both instances an advisory body on infrastructure could have added real value. Arguably, both issues have become media footballs because a crucial step was missed or rushed in the decision-making process. Had an independent, expert, body sitting outside party politics been in place we would have had a better chance of avoiding today's endless debates on aviation and high-speed rail.
On aviation, an infrastructure commission could have broached the issue far earlier and in a non-partisan manner. The need to wait for a series of policy reversals and prevarications before the experts were turned to could have been avoided.
On high-speed rail, a thorough, transparent debate on the potential costs, benefits and alternatives to HS2 at the start could have avoided the proxy battles currently being carried out in the media.
Whilst there remains much thinking to be done on the idea of an infrastructure commission, two features crucial to its success are beginning to come into view.
First, it would need to be outside politics but accountable to politicians and as independent as possible from the government of the day. This suggests a body staffed by experts rather than political appointees and one that reports and is accountable to Parliament rather than government.
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.
Crucially however, the final decision on major infrastructure issues must still rest with elected politicians; they hold the democratic accountability to sign off on the sizeable financial investments often required. Additionally the Commission should not be a delivery body but a strategic one.
The common assumption has long been that no government would ever want to move priority setting for our infrastructure needs to an independent body. With the publication of the Armitt Review we will see if Labour is prepared to take the first step.