Westminster Advisers was delighted to recently host Sir John Armitt for a breakfast discussion on ‘Delivering greater certainty for UK infrastructure’ and the work of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). As one of the UK’s most successful engineers and former Head of the Olympic Delivery Authority, Sir John has presided over some of the UK’s more complex and significant major projects. The event provided a useful discussion with leading representatives in the sector, a summary of which is below.

The age old question that dogs providers and investors into infrastructure is whether it’s possible to take the politics out of infrastructure – to decouple planning and decision-making on future infrastructure from, for example, a change in government or a change in minister.

There exists a widely held – and legitimate – frustration that government isn’t prepared to make decisions swiftly and progress reports into reality. Governments fear an unpopular decision could potentially cost them a parliamentary majority, a local council election or indeed a successful candidacy for London Mayor….such as with the much documented Davies Commission and Heathrow.

Given the newly formed NIC reports directly to Treasury and the recommendations are ‘laid’ before Parliament rather than ‘debated’ by Parliament – there also still exists a cynicism of whether it can be truly independent. Furthermore if the Commission is only given projects on a two to three month basis, there lies a limitation on the potential for its comprehensiveness.

With a budget of £10m and a staff of 20, the NIC has the resource to be influential and far reaching given its capability to utilise external expertise and talent. At present, commissioners work closely with the Chief Executive Phil Graham and the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC) using an iterative and consultative process to reach conclusions and finalise recommendations. This process has led to recent success where recommendations on Crossrail 2 and Northern Connectivity were taken forward by the Chancellor.

A longer term strategy for the future needs of infrastructure is in the pipeline for 2017-2018, albeit carefully planned to ensure due consideration before the 2020 general election and the potential onset of political inertia.

The report will be an in-depth analysis of individual sectors and factors facing the planning of infrastructure from now to 2050. It plans to reflect likely population and economic growth, information communication technology and rail electrification which could all affect demand. For the NIC to successfully do this it was observed that it must have housing in its remit, given the importance of this in meeting long term infrastructure needs.

The NIC wants to progress to a point where it has the teeth and clout of the OBR. The proof of the Commission’s role will come in the publication of its annual report and whether it takes an objective approach to reviewing the government’s progress on infrastructure.

It would seem it has some promising potential to improve UK infrastructure planning, but while it still reports to a Chancellor – and a government – that is increasingly tactical in its approach to long term decision making, it seems unlikely it will ever get the free rein it needs to leave politics at the door.