I welcome the government’s focus on infrastructure but, for the NIC to start work quickly and effectively, these are my top five priorities for the commission
At the recent Conservative Party Conference, the chancellor announced the establishment of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), to be headed up by former Labour cabinet minister, Lord Adonis. A key policy of Labour’s last election manifesto, the intention is for the NIC to start work immediately, making recommendations on which major projects are in the “national interest” and what infrastructure is needed for the country “to build for its future”.
Along with industry colleagues, I welcome the government’s focus on infrastructure and the imperative placed on Lord Adonis to start to identify our infrastructure pipeline. In order for the NIC to start work as quickly – and effectively – as possible, these are my top five priorities for the commission:
Draw upon industry experience
Lord Adonis is an excellent choice to head up the commission. However, we shouldn’t miss out on industry leaders and those at the coalface of delivery in the supply chain who have recently delivered successful, large-scale strategic infrastructure projects, for example, Crossrail, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games or HS1. These are the people who know how to ensure project delivery, and indeed, the commission’s credibility (and the key to its own success) will be built upon the influence and respect for the people involved.
Focus on how to enact the northern powerhouse
There’s been a lot of talk about the northern powerhouse and how its success is fundamental to the success of the regional economies, but now’s the time to turn talk into reality. While there are a number of different elements that fall under the Northern Powerhouse umbrella, the NIC needs to do what it can to bring forward the infrastructure initiatives, working alongside Transport for the North and key figures in northern public and private sectors.
Ensuring the skills agenda is properly aligned with infrastructure pipeline
Currently, infrastructure projects are viewed in isolation and aren’t working as a collective to optimise skills and productivity and keep the cost base down. For the projects selected by the commission proper thought and planning needs to be put into the skills that are going to be needed in order to deliver the pipeline. This includes aligning the industry training provisions to fill the gaps at a strategic level when projects are coming off the drawing board, to ensure they’re joined up with other major projects, so we know where and when the skills are needed. Importantly though, the commission mustn’t be seen as a substitute for industry which needs to take more responsibility in building a fit for purpose and diverse workforce.
Provide certainty for the industry
Too often we see a stop-start approach to projects - and frequently it can take years for projects to get off the ground. We need a more programmatic approach to our project pipeline, which can flex to world and domestic requirements. A major success for the commission will be if it can smooth the pipeline peaks and troughs, providing certainty to the industry so that we know when and where to invest our resources, which will also help us shape our talent pipeline with the right skills focus.
Look at how it can bring projects forward faster post-recommendation
This may be one for the longer-term, once the commission’s properly established, but surely there’s a piece of work to be done (and who better to look at it than the commission?) to see how the Development Consent Order process post-recommendation can be speeded up. Too often projects get caught in the political quagmire once agreement has been achieved and we need to find a long-term solution to fast-track major projects through the planning and development process, without losing democratic accountability.
But the responsibility can’t be on Lord Adonis’ shoulders alone. Government needs to step up and ensure it quickly and impartially implements the commission’s recommendations to ensure that we deliver the UK’s much needed infrastructure projects now and for the future.
Jason Millett is chief operating officer, major programmes and infrastructure, at Mace