Sir John Armitt’s proposals for a National Infrastructure Commission are to be welcomed, but can politics be taken out of planning so easily, asks Simon Rawlinson
The Armitt review makes an important contribution to the debate over how the UK plans and delivers its essential infrastructure. Sir John Armitt’s independent assessment of the UK’s long-term infrastructure planning concludes that there are few weaknesses in the UK’s ability to deliver quality infrastructure. The problems lie at the front end: our inability to plan for the long-term and the difficulty in securing a consensus around essential infrastructure investment. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ politicisation of some of the findings of the report gives little confidence that Westminster can resist the temptation to sling mud when thoughts turn to spades in the ground.
The context for long-term planning in the UK could not be trickier. In a crowded island, large infrastructure projects such as the expansion of Heathrow have the potential to shift electoral gravity, so securing political backing can be hugely difficult. Furthermore, 60% of the UK’s infrastructure is under private ownership, under a regulatory system that encourages utilities to respond to market signals rather than invest in anticipation of demand.
An approach to planning based on evidence of need contrasts strongly with Boris Johnson’s ‘vision-led’ plans for London published earlier in the summer
The Armitt review argues that our current approach is muddled and lacks commitment to deliver. Far greater clarity is required around the need for investment, the scope of projects and programmes and how they will be delivered. The fact that HS2 is being planned without a context of a National Policy for Transport Networks shows just how much more joined-up thinking needs to be.
Armitt’s central recommendation is an independent National Infrastructure Commission, responsible for developing long-term plans every 10 years and policing their implementation by government departments. This idea has immediate appeal. Would we be experiencing a primary schools places crisis now if a group of dispassionate planners had spotted a shift in demographics a few years ago? Who knows, but clearly there is room for improvement, given current evidence on long-term planning for aviation, energy and other essential infrastructure. An approach to planning based on evidence of need contrasts strongly with Boris Johnson’s “vision-led” plans for London published earlier in the summer, and is more likely to be supported by you and me - the constituency for whom essential infrastructure is ultimately being delivered.
Ed Balls’ politicisation of some of the findings of the report gives little confidence that Westminster can resist the temptation to sling mud when thoughts turn to spades in the ground
Disciplined democracy is at the heart of the proposal - as politics cannot be taken out of the infrastructure debate. The commission would be appointed by the prime minister, the national plans would be voted on by parliament, and actual implementation plans would be worked up, as now, by government departments and regulatory authorities. The big differences are that there would be an evidence base for the national plans, and that the National Infrastructure Commission would have oversight with respect to the fitness for purpose of departmental plans and the effectiveness of their delivery.
Sir John has produced an attractive report. It has a single clear proposal that addresses many of the weaknesses of our infrastructure planning. The means of delivery - an independent commission - is a model that appears to work in other parts of our lives. UK citizens have become used to technocrats determining the borrowing rates that we pay and the drugs that our doctors can use. However, independence is neither a recipe for infallibility, nor for an easy life, and fractious planning disputes will continue to hold back the UK’s ability to invest.
The UK is now 28th in the infrastructure rankings in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, and critical decisions on investment keep being kicked down the road. As the party conference season reaches its climax, it would be an encouraging sign if politicians of all colours were to step away from short-term political gain to focus on long-term delivery.
Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at EC Harris