In May the government announced plans for legislation to establish the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) on a statutory basis.
When the legislation was published last month, all mention of the NIC had simply disappeared. What was going to have been a Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill had become simply the Neighbourhood Planning Bill. The conclusion drawn was that the NIC had fallen victim to the change in occupants in numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street.
Supporters of the idea of a National Infrastructure Commission think it will help remove the political uncertainty that dogs decisions to build big projects.
Chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond told the Conservative Party conference earlier this month that the NIC remains important to the government but he made no mention about its statutory status. In his speech he said: "Ensuring we have world class infrastructure is vital to maintaining our competitiveness but it is a very long-term agenda. One that can be, and often has been, knocked off course by short-term political considerations. That’s why we announced the National Infrastructure Commission. To define independently the nation’s long-term infrastructure needs, to prioritise and plan, to test value for money, to ensure that every penny spent on infrastructure is properly targeted to deliver maximum benefit. And today I recommit to putting the commission at the very heart of our plans to renew and expand Britain’s infrastructure. Making sure that it is long-term economics not short-term politics that drives Britain’s vital infrastructure investment."
However, for some business lobby interests, this does not go far enough. They are keen to see the NIC's role and independence enshrined in legislation, like that enjoyed by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
The leaders of the Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce, London First and the Infrastructure Forum Advisory Council have written an open letter to Philip Hammond calling for legislation.
We are writing to express our concern at the surprise decision of the government to drop plans to legislate to establish the National Infrastructure Commission as a statutory body.
The government said in January that “the Commission’s legal form will be central to ensuring its independence and credibility”. We agree. The ultimate purpose of the Commission is to provide a stable vision of the UK’s infrastructure needs over the long term, well beyond the period in office of this government or the next.
Just as the OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] needs statutory protection to ensure that it is properly independent of government and properly accountable to the public with the sanction of parliament, so does the commission.
The overwhelming response of the government’s extensive consultation was in favour of it becoming a statutory body, and its National Infrastructure Assessment being required to be laid before and voted on by parliament.
We ask the government to reconsider and introduce the bill promised in the Queen’s Speech in the next parliamentary session.
With all good wishes,
Richard Threlfall, chairman, The Infrastructure Forum Advisory Council
Dr Adam Marshall, acting director general, British Chambers of Commerce
Carolyn Fairbairn, director general, Confederation of British Industry
John Dickie, director of strategy & policy, London First