To address this the previous government had agreed to set up a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) however over the summer the government decided to drop proposals to create the NIC from the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill, the Bill thus became simply the Neighbourhood Planning Bill.
For proponents of the NIC, such as EEF, this was a backward step – however the government promised it was simply under review and they would come forward with alternative proposals.
This week, they published those proposals. Promising ‘permanence’ and ‘independence’, however scratch beneath the surface and those words deflect from the fact that by setting the NIC up as an executive agency it delivers less certainty on permanence and independence compared to the promised alternative of statutory underpinning through an Act of Parliament.
The executive agency route provides less indepedence
Executive agencies, such as the DVLA or VOA, are typically bodies that deliver on government policy or provide an arm’s length service.
The ambition behind the NIC was different – an early warning system on infrastructure challenges to allow a debate to take place on which ones are the most crucial the potential alternatives and the economic, environmental and social cost of not doing nothing.
This last aspect, the cost of doing nothing, was why independence and transparency is so crucial to the NIC – as invariably, it is governments who tend to prevaricate on doing something.
An executive agency, without statutory underpinning, is independent purely if it enjoys political backing. While this may seem like a technical point, in essence the government can simply shut up shop at any point in time or change the NIC’s remit.
Over time we hope the government recognises the value of true independence for the NIC and builds on this week’s announcement to give it the permanence and independence in legislation that such a crucial function deserves.