Consensus can power infrastructure revolution

Sir John Armitt writes on the creation of the National Infrastructure Commission – the idea he helped develop.

Infrastructure forms the backbone of modern society – it not only boosts GDP and job creation but regenerates communities, protects us from flooding and supplies our energy and water. It enables the movement of essential goods into and around the UK.

In the UK we have a rich engineering heritage stretching back to the industrial revolution, and proven ability in delivering major projects. Nonetheless we encounter some difficulties when it comes to understanding why we must invest, what we need to build and having confidence in our decisions.

In 2012 I was asked to develop a way forward – with cross-party support for evidence-based decision making at its heart. My colleagues and I – including Lord Adonis – consulted widely and proposed the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission to provide dispassionate analysis of the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs.

Three years later, I am thrilled to finally see cross-party support for the concept. During this year’s Budget, the Chancellor said government needed to be bold when it comes to infrastructure, and this is indeed a bold and positive step.

Lord Adonis is the right person to take the helm. He has long championed infrastructure and brings vast experience in transport and housing. He is known and respected across political boundaries for his drive, intelligence and ideas. He has all the credentials.

And he is keen to get started. While the commission is being put into statute, Andrew will work on an interim basis – providing continuity to industry and certainty to the investment community.

Critical areas

I am also pleased to see the commission will initially tackle three critical areas.

Energy is without doubt our most vital network, due to the role it plays in ensuring all the other networks – transport, water, waste and ICT – function effectively and can meet future demand. With capacity margins reducing we need to address our energy issues before we can deliver ambitious plans across other sectors. It is absolutely right that the commission views infrastructure as a whole interconnected ‘system’ rather than a set of isolated networks.

Delivering better connectivity between the Northern cities is also an imperative. Connectivity appears to have become a ‘buzzword’ and perhaps its meaning has become lost to us. In social terms, without it, how do we get to work or school? How do we access health services or visit loved ones? In economic terms, poor connectivity means cities limit the size of their labour markets and cannot connect effectively with trading partners.

Without integrated connectivity the vision for the North simply cannot be realised.

Finally, we have to keep our capital city moving. There are some big transport decisions on the horizon and the commission must inform these.

Reaching consensus

Let’s be clear – a commission cannot remove politics from decisions on infrastructure and nor should it; politicians and the public will always have differing views on how to achieve something. However, the commission can provide unbiased analysis on the UK’s infrastructure needs for the coming decades and act as a catalyst for reaching consensus.

For me, the success of the commission will be truly underpinned by the independent evidence on which its analysis is based. This essentially opens up the debate; drawing from a wide pool of experts, data, analysis and consultations, and taking into consideration key factors such as climate change, population growth and affordability for the taxpayer. It will provide a basis for the strategic thinking that has been largely absent in the UK over the last few decades.

ICE stands ready to assist with this, and contribute to the formation and remit of the commission. I also look forward to seeing the commission publish its first round of advice to government by next year’s Budget.

Sir John Armitt becomes president of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 4 November. This article was originally published on the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Infrastructure Blog

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