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Heathrow saga prompts calls for NIC to take charge

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Construction of Heathrow’s long-awaited third runway is edging closer, but one transport consultant believes politics must take a back seat – and that the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) should have greater powers over major projects.

When the Commons vote on Heathrow expansion passed last week industry leaders, many of whom will be looking to win work on the third runway, reacted with relief.

But there was also a note of frustration – despite taking 15 years to get to this point, Heathrow’s expansion is still not guaranteed to go ahead.

London boroughs, London mayor Sadiq Khan and Greenpeace are expected to launch a legal challenge to the go-ahead decision in the coming days. This could plunge the mega-project into further delays and complications.

And with the Labour party pulling its support for the Commons vote at the 11th hour, a Corbyn-led government could not be guaranteed to push ahead with expansion.

Political instability and Brexit distractions mean that for some, Heathrow shows the UK has a problem with delivering infrastructure.

And with nationally important schemes such as Crossrail 2 and High Speed 2 coming up, several have lost faith in politicians’ ability to deliver major infrastructure projects.

Ramboll UK managing director Mathew Riley told New Civil Engineer the long delays and political indecision over Heathrow’s expansion had given him a “frustration in the political system”.

He said: “Heathrow are well prepared [for legal challenges]. If anything is going to trip them up it’ll be the politics again,” predicting the same kind of political indecision could delay Crossrail 2 by 20 years.

“This whole process just highlights why politics alone can’t be allowed to dictate these decisions, because actually it will be to the long-term detriment of the quality of life in the UK, however you define that,” Riley added.

“It’s that lack of stable policy that is going to impact the ability to attract private investment, which will then impact the ability to deliver these projects.”

So how do we tackle the problem? For Riley, the answer lies in part-divorcing infrastructure decisions from the parliamentary lifecycle – and that means giving the NIC greater power.

Currently the NIC advises government on the country’s infrastructure needs. It will publish its first National Infrastructure Assessment in July, which it hopes will improve the planning process across government departments.

“The NIC has access to all the right industry experts and yet it only has a voice, so the government can either choose to listen to that voice or to ignore it,” said Riley.

“I think it needs to be given stronger powers than that to determine and actually plan long-term infrastructure needs, and help the Treasury plan for those long-term infrastructure needs.”

But leading think tank Institute for Government researcher Graham Atkins said giving the NIC more powers was unlikely to result in less politically-led delays.

“We do not agree that the NIC should be given decision-making powers. But we think it should be more independent,” he said.

For Atkins, all infrastructure decisions are “inherently political” as they involve making choices about which parts of the country receive investment. Atkins believes giving the unelected NIC decision-making powers would be wrong.

But he does believe the NIC, currently subordinate to the Treasury, should be made a non-departmental public body to give it greater freedom.

“It should be made more independent, but it shouldn’t be given the power to make decisions on which schemes do and do not go ahead,” he said, adding there will always be supporters and opponents to big projects.

“I do not think there is really a way, short of changing the electoral system, that you could avoid that kind of political delay.”

The NIC declined to comment.

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