Armitt Review on infrastructure planning – halfway there

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The challenge of planning and delivering long term infrastructure requirements in Britain is often blighted by an overly political debate where both sides throw selective evidence at each other to back up their point of view.

Two examples highlight this:

  • The poor evidence base for High Speed 2 with the political consensus for the project fraying in recent months and
  • Britain's future aviation capacity needs with the Davies Commission being asked to report after the next election, delaying progress on this issue even further

This underlines the need for a body to look strategically at the country's infrastructure requirements over a long time period. The Armitt Review published today picks up on these issues and we welcome the call for a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) tasked with setting out a long term view on strategic infrastructure priorities.

The Armitt Review had a clear remit:

  • To outline an institutional structure that would best support long term strategic decision making and
  • To suggest how cross party consensus on this could be forged

The Review recommends that the NIC would produce, each decade, an evidence based assessment of the UK's significant national infrastructure needs over a 25-30 year horizon. This assessment would then be passed to government to receive Parliamentary approval. Once received Departments would be tasked with developing sector plans (e.g. for energy, transport etc.) to implement the national infrastructure assessment and these plans would be subject to Parliamentary approval.

The NIC would comment on how fit for purpose sector plans are and subsequently on an annual basis comment on how effective departments are implementing these.

While the Review outlines an effective institutional way forward, more work needs to be done on how best to forge a cross-party consensus.

The Review confuses the requirement for Parliamentary approval as a proxy for cross-party consensus.The Review recommends the NIC should submit their National Infrastructure Assessment to government and within six months government (or more specifically the Chancellor) would submit this to Parliament along with amendments and the rationale behind these amendments. By virtue of being in government the Opposition could simply be ignored and the Assessment approved by Parliament without any cross-party consensus.

A different approach may work better; the NIC should be established as a Parliamentary Body. In line with other such bodies such as the National Audit Office it would have a clear role in reporting and being accountable to Parliament and play a greater part in all major discussions on infrastructure strategy and priorities.

A 'statutory footing' is often seen as enough to safeguard new expert bodies, however in reality any incoming government can simply repeal the relevant legislation. Getting infrastructure strategy and priorities right is such an important issue that we believe solutions will need to go even further than just the usual methods.

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