Fears omission could weaken the infrastructure body

The government has quietly shelved plans to establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission in law, in a revised Neighbourhood Planning bill published yesterday.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is meant to set long-term infrastructure priorities for the government outside the five-year political cycle, and was meant to be given statutory independent powers to do this.

It was launched by former chancellor George Osborne last October, who lured Labour peer Andrew Adonis to chair it and seven heavy-hitters including Sir John Armitt and Sadie Morgan to also join.

Osborne had planned to put the NIC on an independent statutory footing and an earlier version of the neighbourhood bill - going by the longer title the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill - had included provision to do this.

But the latest version of the bill includes no mention of the NIC.

Industry experts expressed concerns the omission could mean May’s government has cooled on the idea.

Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at Pinsent Masons, commented: “It is certainly a surprise to see the National Infrastructure Commission dropped from the Neighbourhood Planning Bill.

“This sudden change of course will not help a jittery infrastructure sector post Brexit, already wondering what the new government means for infrastructure investment. So it’s essential that the government rapidly explains why the Commission has been dropped from the Bill, reassures us that the Government is still committed to a Commission and confirms that infrastructure investment, informed by the Commission, is a top priority.”

A Whitehall insider told Building civil servants still expect the NIC to get statutory powers: “As far as I’m aware there’s still the commitment to do that and that hasn’t changed. We’re still working with it, it’s about long term planning.”

The NIC has already made recommendations on several areas of infrastructure policy, including transport in the north of England, and is currently working on proposals to boost housing and jobs in the Cambridge to Oxford corridor and on the national roll-out of 5G coverage.

A National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) spokesperson said the NIC retains support “across the political spectrum”.

The spokesperson added: “What matters is that the commission is established in a way that firmly secures its independence, provides the powers that it needs to do its job and places clear obligations on government to respond to its recommendations in a timely fashion.

“How this is done is a matter for government. But if the commission is to succeed in its work it will be essential to get it right, and we look forward to seeing the government’s new proposals as soon as possible.”