Doubts are growing as to whether the National Infrastructure Commission is actually up to the job that it was set up to do.
When the government set up the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) in 2015, the hope was that it would somehow take politics out of planning, by having a panel of experts decide what infrastructure policy should be, thus encouraging cross-party consensus. That way, it was hoped, the stasis that traditionally plagued infrastructure planning would somehow come to an end.
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) was fully supportive of the idea, especially as its own president at the time, Sir John Armitt, was made chairman of the NIC – a position he still holds six years later.
However, infrastructure planning has become no less politically divisive over the past six years. So what has the NIC actually achieved, beyond publishign some reports?
The ICE says that it is time to have another think about how it is all working out, and how best to put questions of affordability and environmental considerations in the decision making mix.
It also proposes some sort of parliamentary involvement in the infrastructure planning process, to better build cross-party consensus.
Following publication of the first National Infrastructure Strategy late last year, the ICE says “the time is right to review the current components of the process and consider what, if any, improvements could be made to best support the delivery of stable long-term decisions on infrastructure priorities”.
The ICE has produced a consultation paper asking if broadening the NIC’s scope from economic infrastructure, to include social infrastructure such as housing and green infrastructure, would help deliver better strategic planning outcomes.
Among other questions that the ICE asks are:
• Should cost and affordability constrain the advice given by NIC to government?
• Are there any implications for strategic infrastructure planning when government-commissioned reviews on economic infrastructure are conducted outside the NIC?
• Should there be a fiscal remit to guide the NIC? If yes, how should this remit be determined?
• Should additional remits be outlined in addition to the fiscal and economic remit, for example, carbon?
• What evidence is there that the new approach to strategic infrastructure planning has brought benefits to the processes, behaviours and practices for infrastructure decision-making?
• Would parliamentary involvement help to improve the process of strategic infrastructure planning? How could this be achieved?
The institution is looking for opinions to feed into a final policy report, which will offer thoughts to government and decision-makers ahead of the next round of planning later this year.
ICE past-president Paul Sheffield said: “We all know the significant challenges we face in coming decades, to sustainably implement the complex infrastructure changes that are required to meet population growth, demographic shifts, imbalances in economic prosperity across the nation and, of course, decarbonising the economy.
“Policymakers need to make decisions in a timely and effective way and these decisions must be founded on the best available evidence. Taking time to review whether our infrastructure planning systems are working is important – and I encourage all those interested in delivering a sustainable UK to engage with us and share their thoughts.”
The consultation is open until midnight on 3rd May 2021.