Concerns have been raised about the future of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) after a Bill that was supposed to put the body on a statutory footing omitted any mention.
The Queen’s Speech in May introduced the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill with notes on the Bill saying it would include “a new statutory basis for the independent National Infrastructure Commission, to help invest in Britain’s long-term future.”
However, the Bill published yesterday (7 September) was called the Neighbourhood Planning Bill and it failed to mention the NIC – a move which one leading infrastructure lawyer described as a “mega-surprise” and left the industry calling for reassurance on the NIC’s future.
“Now more than ever it is important to build confidence in the UK as a country committed to delivering the infrastructure it needs to thrive,” said Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) director general Nick Baveystock.
“Setting the NIC on a statutory footing would have been a timely, cross-party show of commitment and continuity. While disappointing, the NIC has been operating without legislation since its creation and its purpose and focus remain clear. Its long-term needs analysis is underway, and this work will be supported by the ICE-led National Needs Assessment to be published in October.
“We would like to see government provide swift reassurance on how and when it plans to establish the NIC as a permanent entity with the independence and powers it requires.”
The Civil Engineering Contractors Association head of external affairs Marie-Claude Hemming said: “It is unclear at the moment whether this decision reflects a delay to the process of setting up the National Infrastructure Commission or a more fundamental change of heart as to how it will operate.
“If it is the former, this might be understandable due to the unanticipated call on parliamentary time to process the UK’s departure from Europe, pushing a Bill for the commission down the pecking order.
“But it would be more worrying if the Government has decided that the Commission does not need statutory underpinning. Without this, it is likely to be hobbled from day one in terms of its ability to act, as it will no longer have powers backed by law to do its job.”
Even the NIC itself was left uncertain after the announcement. “What matters is that the Commission is established in a way that firmly secures its independence, provides the powers that it needs to do its job and places clear obligations on government to respond to its recommendations in a timely fashion,” said an NIC spokesman.
“How this is done is a matter for government. But if the Commission is to succeed in its work it will be essential to get it right, and we look forward to seeing the government’s new proposals as soon as possible.”
A Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the NIC would be included in any future Bill, but said it was ‘really important’ and the Treasury was committed to it.
Within the broader industry there was concern too. An infrastructure lawyer said the omission showed that infrastructure decisions remain deeply political and that the decision brought into question how far the priorities of the NIC and government are aligned.
The Bill has been introduced to Parliament and is due to be debated shortly.