Sir John Armitt says National Infrastructure Commission’s relationship with government so far unclear

John Armitt

The status that recommendations made by the new National Infrastructure Commission will have is still to be determined, according to one of its commissioners and the original proponent of the idea, Sir John Armitt.

Talking to Building, Armitt said it was unclear how the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) will interact with government, and what measures would be in the forthcoming bill designed to put the body on a statutory footing. Armitt, former chairman of both the OlympicDelivery Authority and Network Rail, drew up the idea for former Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls prior to the May election, and was named commissioner on the NIC late last month by chancellor George Osborne.

Armitt’s report envisaged a particular structure, in which the NIC would draw up plans based on an assessment of needs over 30 years, which would then be laid before parliament and voted in as law. The NIC would then play an ongoing role scrutinising the government’s implementation plans, and reporting on progress delivering it. This week Armitt said: “What’s not quite so clear is how it will interact with government. They’ve got to decide what’s going to be in the bill that lays out the statutory obligations of the commission, and the government, and its relation to the commission.

“That whole structure, how that is tackled, has not been decided yet. Whether it’s that model [laid out by Armitt], or a less prescriptive model that’s perhaps less clunky, is still to be determined.”

Armitt’s comments may raise fears in some quarters that the NIC won’t have powers to force the government’s hand on infrastructure investment.

Armitt said: “I expect in the bill the government will have to some degree to accept and respond and take heed of the commission’s findings.”

Armitt added that he expects the NIC to make recommendations on how projects will be funded and delivered, as well as simply what infrastructure is required. This has the potential to lead to conflict with government policy, with Armitt a supporter of a greater public sector role in nuclear new build, for example. Armitt said: “The key thing is we strike an appropriate balance between the different views of society and the industry. We’re not there to dream up fanciful notions of schemes that can never be afforded.”

Armitt’s comments came as the government announced it was further shaking up the way it managed major infrastructure projects, with its existing infrastructure unit, Infrastructure UK, to be merged with the government body charged with overseeing major capital spending programmes, to form the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.