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Heathrow was the elephant in the room at Tuesday’s Infrastructure Commission launch by Labour in Westminster. Most people there heard the shadow chancellor’s commitment to take early decisions on infrastructure as an indication that he’d approve a third runway if Labour gets back into power.
Balls didn’t say he’d back a runway, but the idea of an Infrastructure Commission is going down well with the experts because it promises an answer to the malaise they see in the Heathrow debate. They blame weak ministerial leadership and partisan politics for delaying a scheme they consider as self evidently a good thing for the nation.
Sir John Armitt’s [Who is on the Airports Commission ….] carefully crafted proposal appeals to business because its national infrastructure plan would allow them to hold politicians’ feet to the fire on specific commitments like aviation. Ed Balls welcomed this prospect, promising that it would allow government to “take the politics out” of such decisions, which is always attractive to those who have dealt with the messy process politics generates.
The commission is welcome, but it can’t remove the politics
There are many good things to be said about the commission proposal. It has evolved significantly since its inception, and has taken on board Green Alliance’s suggestion that decarbonisation and resource efficiency need to be organising principles for infrastructure modernisation.
Ed Balls deserves credit for insisting that green economy objectives are at the heart of the commissions brief. If the right people are appointed to the commission it should help end the supply side bias in infrastructure spending and increase investment in transport demand management and energy efficiency. What it will not do, even if it leads to cross-party agreement, is take the politics out of infrastructure.
This is because most infrastructure politics takes place outside parliament. The troubled tales of fracking and Heathrow illustrate this, and point to the biggest weakness of the proposal: there is no structure to engage the public, or to harness the huge power of our cities and counties to deliver smart, sustainable infrastructure… or their potential to block it.
Public debate is needed
Few energy technologies have received as much political support as fracking. The prime minister has made the case consistently and forcefully for over two years that it is in the UK’s interest to “go all out for shale”. The chancellor has cabinet backing for an action plan to help exploration companies establish the first wells and Labour and the Lib Dems remain broadly supportive. And yet, so far we do not have any sites up and running.
Parliament is clearly not the problem. Industry is losing its licence to operate before it gets started, as public consent, or lack of it, is being determined in parish halls and local planning committees, not in Westminster. The commission wouldn’t be able to make fracking popular but, if it was committed to help cities and counties understand their energy options, the debate would become less polarised and the politics of energy infrastructure would be a little less fraught.
Superficially, Heathrow looks like a partisan Westminster battle. A Labour government said yes, a Conservative opposition said no, and the wheels came off the tarmac roller before the 2010 election. Except that, in reality, both parties are deeply divided on the subject, there has been consistent public opposition, and the intervention of successive London mayors has made it harder for national politicians to overrule public sentiment.
The commission can’t make Heathrow the Londoner’s choice, nor should its job be to simply ‘sell’ a particular option. But it should aim to do more than a technocratic assessment of aviation capacity. It should encourage structured debate with protagonists about transport capacity need, different ways of meeting it, and the costs and trade-offs they involve, as an alternative to the hollowed out media debate we currently have.
The British are ultimately pragmatic
This may sound a frightening prospect if you are used to public consultation meetings on controversial projects, but deliberative debate on infrastructure choices and priorities would have a very different flavour, and it works. The British are a pragmatic breed and, when given the information about trade-offs and options, we are generally willing to compromise. I know because I participated in a year-long exercise to help the counties of south west England develop their own renewable energy strategy. Fixed positions on wind power and other technologies soon dissipated as choices and costs were explored. By the end, six counties had all adopted their own renewable energy targets with distinct strategies to achieve them.
Infrastructure planning can enable this diversity of approaches to shared challenges, ideally at combined authority level, with each working towards an overarching national plan but in a way that works for their city or county.
The Infrastructure Commission is a good start in solving the knotty political problem of how to align different interests to a common plan to make Britain greener, leaner and more prosperous. But the size of its ambition means it will only work if it establishes a structure and a culture of public engagement.
It’s not hard to do, but it does require humility from business and politicians to open up the process and allow citizens in. English devolution provides new opportunities to do just that. Green Alliance will be publishing detailed proposals of how it can be done in the next fortnight.
Ed sets out an ambitious vision for Britain’s infrastructure
Today Ed announced that legislation to set up an independent National Infrastructure Commission, which will stop long-term decisions being kicked into the long grass, will be in Labour’s first Queen’s Speech after the election.
A draft Bill has already been published to ensure that the plans can be fast-tracked through Parliament this year.
Ed also published for consultation a draft remit for the new Commission which sets out 10 National Infrastructure Goals which Britain should achieve over the coming decades.
Speaking at the UK Infrastructure Conference, Ed said:
“For too long successive governments have ducked and delayed the vital decisions we need to take for the long term. As a country we have got to stop kicking big decisions into the long grass.
“So in our first Queen’s Speech after the election we will act. We will establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify our long-term infrastructure needs, from energy to flood defences and transport.
“The Commission will then ensure government comes up with credible plans to meet them – and hold Ministers’ feet to the fire to deliver those plans.
“We need an ambitious vision to ensure Britain has a transport network that spreads prosperity to every part of the country, is the best place in the world to do scientific research and meets the challenge of climate change.
“Infrastructure investment is vital to boosting growth and productivity in a way which raises living standards for the many, not just a few at the top. That’s why it is a key part of Labour’s economic plan.”
You can read the draft consultation at http://www.armittreview.org
Draft remit for consultation
One of the proposed National Infrastructure Commission’s main goals is for the UK to be:
“The most connected and open trading nation in the world”:
“Secure a future for aviation in the UK which ensures that in the context of an increasingly competitive global environment we ensure greater environmental sustainability, regional strength, sufficient hub capacity and assess the kind of connectivity that a modern 21st century economy needs.”
and it wants:
Independent Armitt Review of Infrastructure
Click here to download the draft remit for the National Infrastructure Commission; Labour’s response to the Armitt Review.
If you would like to submit to this consultation contact email@example.com
In October 2012 the Labour Party commissioned Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, to undertake an independent Review of long term infrastructure planning in the UK, looking at:
- whether a new institutional structure can be established that better enables the long term decision making necessary for strategic infrastructure planning; and
- how political consensus can be forged around these decisions.
Following a call for evidence, followed by a period of detailed consultation with a range of individuals and organisations experienced in the promotion, funding and delivery of UK infrastructure, Sir John has published his final report.
In the report, Sir John calls for the establishment of an independent National Infrastructure Commission to identify the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs and monitor the plans developed by governments to meet them. The Commission would consider how the UK’s future needs could be met in a targeted and efficient manner with value for money being a primary consideration.
The report argues a new approach is needed to prepare the country for the major challenges ahead, such as population growth and climate change. The comprehensive review examined the difficulties faced by successive governments in making long-term decisions to meet these challenges under the current system.
The Armitt Review makes the following core recommendations aimed at achieving cross-party political consensus, public support and investor certainty for long-term decisions on the UK’s energy, transport, water, waste, flood defences and telecommunications needs:
- A new independent National Infrastructure Commission to look 25-30 years ahead at the evidence for the UK’s future needs across all significant national infrastructure and set clear priorities, for example, nationwide flood prevention or energy supply.
- This National Infrastructure Assessment would be carried out every 10 years and include extensive research and consultations with the public, local government, NGOs, regulators and other interested groups or individuals.
- A Parliamentary vote on the evidence-based infrastructure priorities would have to take place within six months of their publication, to avoid delays.
- Within 12 months of this vote Government Departments would have to form detailed 10 year Sector Plans of how they will deliver and fund work towards these priorities.
- Parliament would then vote on these 10 year plans and the permanent National Infrastructure Commission would scrutinise the ability of these plans to meet the 25-30 year national priorities and report to Parliament annually on their delivery.
Following publication of the Review, in November 2013 Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls MP announced that he had asked Sir John Armitt to undertake a second phase of work to consider the administrative and legislative steps necessary to establish and operate a National Infrastructure Commission, including preparing draft legislation to establish the Commission.
He has now published two further documents for consultation. The first is a Draft Bill on how the structure and membership of the National Infrastructure Commission and the Parliamentary framework within which it would operate could be established. The second is a summary of the suggested steps which would need to be taken to deliver it.
Sir John welcomes comments on these two documents from all stakeholders by 31 October 2014, with the aim of producing his final proposals, including a revised Draft Bill, by the end of January 2015. Please email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can download these documents below:
- Letter from Sir John Armitt to Rt Hon. Ed Balls MP
- Draft National Infrastructure Bill
- Programme for establishing a National Infrastructure Commission
View or download the original Call for Evidence.