NIC chair rebuffs suggestions that body is underpowered 

Decision-making power over major infrastructure belongs in the hands of politicians, said Sir John Armitt on Tuesday, rejecting suggestions that the group he head up is diminished by its status within the Treasury. 

Armitt, who chairs the National Infrastructure Commission, was addressing questions from the House of Lords built environment committee as part of its inquiry into infrastructure policymaking and implementation in central government. 

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Armitt was previously chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which built the venues, facilities and infrastructure for the 2012 games

The commission, which is responsible for providing expert advice to government of UK infrastructure challenges, was initially proposed as an independent body by former chancellor George Osborne but was ultimately set up as an executive agency of the Treasury by his successor Philip Hammond.  

A fortnight ago, the committee heard from KPMG’s infrastructure chief, Richard Threlfall, who praised the NIC’s work, but said that it “remains vulnerable because of its lack of statutory independence”. 

But Armitt denied that the NIC’s independence was in any way compromised and said the more important question was whether they were listened to by government. 

“You might be able to shout from the rooftops on the basis of your statutory stature and you might get a little more recognition by the press,” he said.  

“I don’t think it has had any particular detrimental effect on us to date, [it might be] a slight advantage if we were, but I don’t think a material one”. 

“The quality of our advice will determine our impact rather than our constitutional status,” added James Heath, the NIC’s chief executive. 

Armitt said ministers are frequently “getting their ears bent” by industry experts with “vested interests”, particularly from the energy sector, and said part of the NIC’s role was “to provide that independent analysis which supports or enables ministers to say we will go down this track rather than that track”. 

After the pair had finished giving evidence, the committee heard the industry view from Jonathan Spruce, director at Fore Consulting and the trustee for policy and external affairs at the Institution of Civil Engineers. 

Spruce said that statutory footing would make a difference, giving the industry “much greater certainty on the cycle of updates” from the commission. 

He compared the situation to Australia, where the national body responsible for infrastructure does have a statutory basis. 

“What that allows then is [for] the individual states […] to plan with the industry the delivery of the necessary infrastructure projects much more effectively [and] much more efficiently,” he said.