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Comment | Commission faces tough choices


Plans to give the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) statutory backing, as outlined this week in the 2016 Queen’s Speech, have been widely welcomed by industry.

If passed in the next few months, the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill will formalise the National Infrastructure Commission as a non-departmental public body, independent from government.

As such, in theory, it will be tasked with assessing the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs to 2050 and identifying the best ways for government to respond. It will also, in theory, be able to hold government to account if it ignores its recommendations.

Which is all fabulous in theory: after all, it’s pretty inarguable that the UK needs some serious investment in infrastructure. In fact, it’s pretty easy to come up with a wish list. We’ve actually had one for a while – it’s called the National Infrastructure Pipeline and it now contains over 600 publicly and privately funded projects and programmes with a combined value of £425bn.

And it keeps on growing: analysis by KPMG this week has revealed a £62.6bn jump in the value of the government-funded projects in the pipeline since August 2015, reflecting inclusion in the pipeline of the full cost of High Speed 2 to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, and additional spend on education and nuclear decommissioning.

We’re certainly adding far more than we are ticking off right now, with Heathrow’s third runway and EdF’s Hinkley Point C projects interminably stalled because of politics and financing respectively and rhetoric around high speed railways far exceeding delivery because talk is cheap and delivery isn’t.

So the challenge for the Commission: prioritise the right projects and then, somehow, make them deliverable.

Energy is a top priority but we’re struggling. What’s the plan B? What happens if, or as feels more likely, when, EdF’s financing collapses? Are we ready to back tidal lagoons? Can we capture enough carbon to justify new gas plants?

Getting more runway capacity going is also a high priority and we’re struggling there too, with a different government-appointed commission having already made its recommendations and been ignored for a year. But is more rail capacity actually more important? Or is it journey time reliability on the road network? Or adding resilience to our critical infrastructure in the face of climate change? There will be some hard choices to be made for sure as that ever-escalating infrastructure pipeline surely needs reining in.

It’s a tough job but ICE President and NIC commissioner Sir John Armitt says the mood in the commission is very positive.

Effort right now is focused on the independent ICE-led National Needs Assessment. It will be provided to the Commission in the autumn to support its needs analysis and is currently being produced following a period of evidence gathering across the UK.

What kind of hard choices will it recommend? What kind of timetable will it set out? If it gets it right – both in content and in tone – it could be hugely powerful.

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