A Department for Infrastructure- the next piece of the puzzle

Julian Francis, ACE policy director

Why the infrastructure commission needs a new government department to deliver long term infrastructure planning. ACE policy director Julian Francis puts the case.

As the general election approaches, our industry can take comfort in the fact that infrastructure investment is high on the political agenda with all parties committed to significant spends. What is more interesting, however, is the interest that is being taken in political circles to the mechanics of how we make infrastructure investment decision.


ACE is launching its report into a Department for infrastructure next Thursday, 26 February in London. To find out more please contact Peter Campbell at pcampbell@acenet.co.uk for details.

Much of the credit for this must go to Sir John Armitt and his Infrastructure Commission. Since 2012 the Commission has been looking at the twin questions of 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. The debates and proposals emanating from this review have provided a stimulating and productive environment for our industry to examine how decisions are made.

A broad consensus has developed around the issues that face the UK infrastructure network and the corresponding impact this is having on UK economic growth. A combination of a lack of long term strategic planning, policy uncertainty and a lack of transparency around funding are combining with a complex planning process and short term regulatory focus are creating a significant drag on the UK economy. 

So how do we solve these problems?

Sir John has called for the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to take the long term view of the UK’s infrastructure needs and this has been warmly received by the industry. I too broadly support this proposal but I do have some reservations as to the political reality of Sir John’s idea. My views are based on my experience with the reality of government as both a political operative and a constitutional lawyer. 

The proposed interaction between the NIC and Parliament would lead to the creation a unique organisation unknown to British constitutional practice. It would be both the child of the Crown and Parliament and will blur the lines between the executive and legislature upsetting the separation of powers. The proposed procedure of a series of parliamentary votes is designed to limit the amount of change that can be undertaken with long term strategic assessments of UK need but this ignores political reality and relies on long term party political stability.

It is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution that no Parliament can bind it successor thus allowing for all acts and decisions to be reviewed roughly every five years. This is not usually an issue with stable party government as we have experience since 1979 with broad scale political consensus such as the UK saw following the war but it can be during periods of instability such as the period of 1963 to 1979. During these periods the political pendulum can swing wildly with each new government seeking to overturn the decisions of the last.

We are once again entering a period of political instability with our political process fragmenting and one party dominance looking like a thing of the past. The danger of the rigid system proposed in light of this instability is that no sooner has one government received and approved a National Assessment and developed sector plans than it could lose an election and be replaced by a government that opposes the assumptions underlying their predecessors’ decisions. Coalition forming and multiparty government can only exacerbate this situation. The result will be more gridlock then we currently have.

"The proposed interaction between the NIC and Parliament would lead to the creation a unique organisation unknown to British constitutional practice. It would be both the child of the Crown and Parliament and will blur the lines between the executive and legislature upsetting the separation of powers."

Added to this the NIC, as currently outlined, is in reality an England only body and not a national body as the proposals ignore the devolution settlement. We cannot make the long term improvements that the UK needs without accepting and adapting our decision making process around the realities of devolution.  

ACE has been asked by Stephen Hammond to examine this political problem and propose a solution that will form the basis of the Conservative Party’s offering for our long term infrastructure needs.

We will be launching our report on 26 February at the Arup offices  in London which calls for the creation of a Department for Infrastructure that would solve the political problem outlined. By keeping the best part of the NIC but ensuring that it interacts with Whitehall and especially the Treasury in a more conventional way, I believe we can achieve the planning certainty the industry needs with the political stability it requires.

Rather than creating more complexity and presenting politicians with an unconventional approach, a new department charged with assessing the strategic needs of the UK and fighting for this at the highest levels of government can achieve the result in a shorter time and at less cost.

I would encourage anyone interested in this debate to attend the launch and see the proposals that will form part of the Conservative offering at the next elections. To attend please email Peter Campbell at pcampbell@acenet.co.uk to register a place.     


(a) the NIC needs to focus on project choice as much as project execution; (b) as much of UK infrastructure falls under the umbrella of a privatised (possibly, regulated) public service, The Green Book, which was designed to assess public sector investments, not private, is "not fit for purpose" for NIC/Government decision-making; (c) the NIC should be set up like the NAO, budgeted by HM Treasury, but reporting directly to Parliament, e.g. PAC, i.e. free from Govt. doctrine.. (d) any Departmental proposal for infrastructure development of >£50-100mn, say, should have to pass an independent Value for Money assessment by NIC based on nominal values and including finance costs and tax. [At present, NAO could only review projects after Departmental decision-making, i.e. post-construction]. If such infrastructure proposals pass such VfM test, public acceptance would be enhanced.
This Department for Infrastructure proposals seems like a Ministry for Construction - except that that the public sector doesn't build most of our infrastructure. Why giving civil servants and minister more responsibility for that which *is* public sector (land transport mostly) is a good idea is beyond me. I thought that was why the Highways Agency was being reformed. And why separate rail infrastructure decisions from services? New infrastructure is usually the last resort for meeting rail objectives - longer or better trains, better timetabling, ticketing incentives, re-signalling, incremental upgrades are all usually preferable. Only when those are exhausted should we spend billions on new lines - but that seems to be the DfI's starting point.