A politically independent infrastructure delivery body could be a reality within six months, former London 2012 construction chief Sir John Armitt has told NCE.
Armitt, the former Olympic Delivery Authority chairman, last week published his Labour-commissioned review into long-term infrastructure planning.
The review called for the establishment of a National Infrastructure Commission with statutory independence, to reduce the impact of changing governments on project delivery.
Armitt told NCE his report was written independently and just needed support of the House of Commons to become a reality.
“I would like the government to read the report and see whether there is anything in it that it is prepared to support,” he said.
“If a government makes a decision that it is going to do it you could get something moving in shadow form while you take the necessary legislation through to create it formally.
“You could get something on statute within six months. The government would write the Bill and if it had support you would expect it to go through fairly quickly.”
Armitt said the commission should be populated by experienced industry figures.
“It needs to be a balanced group of people, with the ability to receive detailed evidence. It would have to be people from the environmental, infrastructure and utility sectors,” he said.
“It would be a bit like the group I put together to create the report.”
This panel included former transport secretary Andrew Adonis, Barclays Infrastructure Funds Management chairman Chris Elliott, and Engineering UK chairman Paul Golby.
Under their plan, the National Infrastructure Commission would gather evidence from all relevant bodies and sift through it to provide an assessment of the UK’s infrastructure needs for the next 25 to 30 years (see box).
This assessment would be debated and voted on in the Houses of Parliament. The approved version would pass to government departments to produce detailed infrastructure plans for their sectors to meet the needs identified.
Armitt said this process would increase investor certainty and speed up the planning process for projects named in the departmental plans.
“The sector plans would go back to Parliament to be debated. So they would act like policy statements and when individual projects came through, the Planning Inspectorate could see it needed a good reason to turn them down.”
The Commission would also have a monitoring role, assessing whether departmental sector plans were fit for purpose, and reporting annually on attempts to deliver them.
Armitt said the London 2012 Games had shown what could be achieved in terms of major infrastructure delivery, if there were cross-party support.
Cross party support
“[The UK] has the ability to design and build,” he said. “What was different about the Olympics was that there was cross-party support at governmental and mayoral level.”
The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (Ceca) backed the proposal to establish a commission for infrastructure.
“Ceca has campaigned for many years for greater consistency in infrastructure policy,” said Ceca director of external affairs Alasdair Reisner.
“We believe that strategic decision-making on infrastructure projects cannot be hostage to the electoral cycle if it is to be effective in the longer term.
“As Sir John Armitt argues, successful infrastructure planning requires a decision-making horizon of at least 25 to 30 years. Creating an independent body on a statutory basis would enable infrastructure planning to formulate policy on a cross-party basis in the national interest.
“We challenge all political parties to work together to put in place proposals that will achieve the objectives outlined in today’s report.”
The ICE said Armitt’s proposals should be adopted by all of the main political parties.
“The clash between the need for long-term strategic infrastructure planning and the nature of short-term political cycles has for too long been a hindrance to delivering the infrastructure we need, when it is needed and at price we can afford,” said ICE director general Nick Baveystock.
“An independent commission tasked with identifying the best options for meeting the priorities approved by Parliament, at arm’s length from the government, is a concept the ICE has championed and could help to ensure projects stand above political fault lines.
“We therefore support Sir John’s proposals and hope they are adopted by the main parties.”
“Our central recommendation is a new National Infrastructure Commission with statutory independence.
“Each decade, this body would undertake an evidence-based assessment of the UK’s infrastructure needs over a 25 to 30 year horizon.
“It would focus predominantly on “nationally significant” infrastructure as defined by the 2008 Planning Act and consult fully with all relevant stakeholders.
“Once the National Infrastructure Commission has completed its assessment of needs, its work would be passed to the government to obtain Parliament’s approval.
“It would then be the responsibility of government departments to produce plans for each infrastructure sector, including details of specific projects and the funding and delivery arrangements for these schemes.
“To prevent any potentially damaging drift in policy, once the Commission has completed its assessment of needs, it would continue to play a key challenge and monitoring role. New statute would require Government to work up the Sector Plans within 12 months of the Commission’s initial report.
“The Commission would then provide an independent assessment as to whether the policies contained within the Sector Plans were fit for purpose and addressed the needs it had identified prior to these Plans being submitted to Parliament for approval. Finally, it would report each year on how effectively the Sector Plans were being implemented.”