The idea of a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) isn’t a new one. It was first called for in a report commissioned by the Labour party in 2012 but only now has it finally came into fruition with an announcement by chancellor George Osborne about its formation.
The commission will be chaired by Lord Adonis and the government is hoping that, with its creation, it will help to push through some of the more pressing matters on its infrastructure “to do” list.
£5bn of extra funding will be ploughed into the new NIC. So what are the issues which the former Labour transport secretary with the track record of “just getting things done” will want to push through?
Adonis was the secretary of state who initiated High Speed 2 (HS2), and he is still one of its staunch supporters. In a response to the report into the viability of HS2 by Lord Hollick which was published in March this year, he dismissed an alternative suggestion that upgrades to the existing lines might be better value for money, saying that the last upgrade of the West Coast Main Line was highly-disruptive, took seven years to build and cost £9bn.
He added that upgrade work had only delivered a fraction of the capacity of a new line, and that further expensive and disruptive upgrades would be needed if HS2 were not built. “There is, I am afraid, no free lunch in this business,” he said.
He also said that building HS2 would free up capacity on commuter services by removing them from the obligation to run long-distance services.
One area where he still admits there are crucial decisions to be made is on the HS2 stations. In a speech given to the House of Lords he cited overseas high-speed rail networks which had produced huge regeneration dividends from new stations and said that similar benefits could be seen in the UK. “It is a universal truth that everyone wants the stations but no one wants the lines,” he said.
However, on the controversial plans for the terminus at Euston station in London, he recognised the potential for failure if the HS2, Network Rail and Crossrail 2 parts of the station were not co-ordinated.
When it comes to housing, Adonis has a no nonsense approach. He can see the value in the land owned by councils and Transport for London (TfL) and he would like to see it freed up for development.
He has pointed out that Southwark Council in south London owns 43% of the land in its borough, a proportion of which he said were garages built in the 1970s, which could be redeveloped. He also described land costs in the capital as one of the biggest barriers to building more affordable housing. “Overcoming public sector land banking is the biggest challenge,” he said.
In the case of TfL, he believes passionately that a commercial approach, such as the one taken by Hong Kong transport operator MTR, which has pioneered major property developments at its stations and train depots, should be taken. This, he said, would provide funding to build and regenerate TfL stations and help solve the housing crisis simultaneously. Of the plans for TfL to generate £1.1bn from property over the next 10 years, he has said that this could be far higher.
Possibly one of the most contentious issues on the government’s agenda is how to expand Britain’s airport network. The Davies report has backed a third runway at Heathrow, but what are the new NIC chair’s thoughts on the matter?
While he has been rather vocal on some of the other pressing matters, Adonis has been more diplomatic on the topic of an airport expansion. On the potential expansion of Heathrow, he has said that he wouldn’t be putting money on it going ahead anytime soon. Political will for the scheme he said was the only thing that would drive the matter forward but he has said that “Britain may agonise for years, sometimes decades, over essential infrastructure, but we generally build it in the end.”
Now that he is in a place of relative power to perhaps influence the decision, time will tell how he will lend his voice to this complicated and controversial debate.
The former transport secretary is again on the side of rail expansion. In fact, he thinks that Crossrail 2 is the most important matter on the agenda for London and the South East. “It will transform links to the north-east and south-west of London, and up to 200,000 new homes could be built alongside it. These are essential to tackling London’s housing crisis,” he has said.
To add further weight to his support for the scheme, he was chairman of the Crossrail 2 Task Force for business lobby group London First and in 2013 said: “Even with the significant investment already taking place in transport infrastructure, Crossrail 2 will be as essential as Crossrail for London to provide jobs and prosperity in the next generation. Now we need a credible funding plan embracing the public and private sectors, with a view to construction in the 2020s.”