Interview: Sir John Armitt – infrastructure in ascendency

Sir John Armitt takes over as the 151st President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in November and as the architect of the Labour inspired, now Tory delivered National Infrastructure Commission he is upbeat about the on-going drive for UK investment in vital infrastructure.

Sir John Armitt

Having masterminded the successful delivery of the 2012 London Olympics infrastructure, Sir John Armitt was asked by the Labour Party in October 2012 to review long term infrastructure planning in the UK. A key recommendation in his report was the idea of an independent National Infrastructure Commission to look 25-30 years ahead at the UK’s future needs across all significant national infrastructure and set clear priorities.

Having initially kept this Labour idea at arms’ length, the new Tory government has now embraced the idea and placed former Labour minister Lord Andrew Adonis in charge of driving the Commission forward. 

As Armitt prepares to take over as President of the ICE, Infrastructure Intelligence spoke to him about plans for the new Commission, the impending post Davies commission government decision on where to build a new runway in the South East and about is forthcoming year in office at the ICE. 

Interview by Antony Oliver.

The National Infrastructure Commission

Chancellor George Osborne has at last backed your idea for a National Infrastructure Commission to be led by Lord Adonis. Is it what you hoped for?

It is very good news and seems to be probably 85% of what was in our [draft] bill. We are, of course, yet to see what goes into the actual bill – and it will have to have one as a statutory body. It seems that the primary difference is the nature of parliament’s engagement with the Commission’s report and in the second phase of the sector infrastructure plans. I was going to run these through Parliament but at the moment, it doesn’t appear to be the case. That said, the statement [by Treasury] did say that the Commission’s report would be put to Parliament so we need to see the detail to understand exactly what they mean by that. But to be honest, there was more detail in the initial announcement than I thought there would be.

Did the government consult you prior to the decision?

No – but they rang me up before hand to let me know to was going to be published. The fact is that we had one political party proposing an independent infrastructure commission which industry supported, and then the other party said yes we are going to have a Commission. Well the headline is that for once we have got the main two political parties agreeing that there is merit in having an independent long term assessment of the country’s infrastructure needs. 

What do you think promoted Osborne’s decision to support the idea of a commission? 

The [Conservatives] never actually objected to it, but they didn’t [initially] come out and support it. However, in the background once or twice ministers told me that they thought it was a reasonable idea – a bit clunky perhaps in structural terms [they said] and so you could argue that what they have seems to have taken out what they thought were those “clunky” bits.

You take over as the 151st President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in November. Has your involvement with the ICE helped influence this decision?

It must help I think. There is a pretty regular dialogue between the ICE and [the Treasury’s] Infrastructure UK.

So are you going to be on the Commission?

I don’t know. Andrew Adonis has got to put together his Commission and the challenge as always is conflict of interest – which we had on the Airport Commission. The result is that the Commission almost can’t have the people that you really want or might automatically think would be on it because, whoever they are, they might end up having to give evidence t[to the Commission]. It has to be an independent body of people who at least have sufficient in their background and knowledge to be able to make some intelligent assessment but not be conflicted or disappear into the weeds either.

Would you have picked Andrew Adonis to run your commission?

I can’t think of a better person to chair it.  We used to discuss this in the margins – we didn’t really bother ourselves with who might be on the commission – but there seems to be a strong argument for a politician to be the chair because at the end of the day this is a political matter. Somebody who is respected and knows his way around the corridors of Parliament must be good. He is interim because he has to be because until you have the bill you can only have the Commission in shadow form. So it’s an interim commission with an interim chairman until the bill goes through – it then becomes a proper commission.

What are Lord Adonis first challenges?

First we just sit and wait and see who Andrew is going to appoint [to the commission]. But he has to do it quickly because he has to complete three short term pieces of work to give guidance to the chancellor when he is allocating resources next March. That is around HS3 – what do we mean by HS3 and the options to improve connectivity in the North; on Crossrail 2 which again he must decide if it is right and how much support government gives to this scheme – because it can’t happen without central government support financially; and the really challenging decision around energy storage and making the grid more efficient.

Going forward, what do you see as Adonis greatest challenges?

I think we always felt that the fundamental challenge for a commission was not about deciding the right projects. For the commission it is about getting the political leaders and the public to understand the challenges ahead and the options and choices of how you can meet those challenges and start to put those into some kind of affordability context – because probably you can’t have everything. It is giving the priority and a rational menu - one that has not been dreamt up in a darkened room but one which has been exposed to a lot of comments rather in the way that the airports commission sought views and opinions. Actually some things which people oppose they are more likely to support if they feel they have a bit more control of and is actually something which is related to them. That it is being done with them and on their behalf.

The Davies Airports Commission

You served on the Davies airport commission which this summer recommended expansion at Heathrow. With hindsight was this commission the right approach?

In the absence of anything else it was absolutely the right thing to do – what else could you have done. Ministers could have just made a decision but then someone would accuse them of just making a decision without a full analysis of all the data and information. What the government was asking is can they look at this body of work and be reasonably comforted and assured that it was about as good a piece of work in the circumstance that could have been done. And if it was done over again that it would be unlikely to get anything better? You might get a different answer but in terms of analysis [they sought] a thorough piece of work by a respected group of individuals and so something to make a decision on. It has certainly got people thinking about deliverability and about the issues.

A decision is promised by government by the end of the year. Will they choose Gatwick or Heathrow?

Clearly having made a recommendation after three years of reflecting on the data that Heathrow was the better choice then clearly what I would hope is that ministers will accept the recommendation.

Is that more likely that government will opt to make no decision on this controversial project?

I think it would be a tragedy if there was no decision. Tragedy might be a bit strong, but we do not do ourselves any good what so ever as a modern nation if we cannot make a decision about where to put an extra runway – it beggars belief really.

And so it should be possible to open a new runway by 2026?

It should be and it needs to be – and it can be achieved if we get a decision in the next two or three months.

President of the Institution of Civil Engineers

You take over as ICE President in November – will you have core themes?

No because over the last couple of years the presidential team are working to three year plans not one year plans to have continuity of objectives, not different ones for each president. So David Balmforth in the last year has been very focused on the whole innovation debate and raising the profile of engineering and I will continue to do that. We have also been trying to get an understanding across the institution that we need to broaden the membership and again I don’t disagree – it is essential that the ICE recognises that engineers by themselves are not the only players that create these major projects and we need to be understand their thoughts as well as those of civil engineers . Particularly at the beginning of projects economists and planner are potentially more important so they need to be brought in.

What is the ICE’s role I driving the future delivery of infrastructure?

The ICE’s role is the same as it has always been. It is an organisation that has an enormous amount of knowledge and experience within its members so has a responsibility to society to try to ensure that that knowledge and information is used in a constructive way – in an essentially factual way – like the commission uses its members and channels of communication to help inform the public about the challenges and choices around infrastructure and generally help everyone understand what infrastructure does and the issues that surround it.

Training the next generation

You are also chairman of the training organisation City and Guilds. Training the next generation remains a big issue across infrastructure – are we getting there in terms of tackling skills shortages?

There are a lot of challenges. If you look at the number of graduates it has significantly improved in terms of the number coming out of university with civil engineering degrees. But you equally need to recognise that we have a group of people in responsible positions that essentially were born between 1946 and 1960 – people who are coming to the ends of their careers. So you have a peak which is going to be retiring in the next ten years and so there is a continuous need to be filling up the pipeline. Particularly in the south east people talk about a shortage of skills and a significant increase in the cost of those skills. 

So what is the solution?

I don’t think enough training is taking place in the industry. I accept that it is perhaps difficult for some others to agree with but I believe that fundamentally the responsibility for training lies with employers and not government. The government’s responsibility is primarily teaching at school through to 18 and ensuring that those young people are able to have access to as good career guidance as is possible - starting at about age 8 to 10 years old.  Clearly then stability of markets enables employers to have confidence to invest in not only training but in research and development and in developing new ideas.

A great time to be in infrastructure

What are the challenges ahead for infrastructure?

At the moment Geoffrey Spence (chief executive of Infrastructure UK) would say there is a £400bn pipeline that they have put into the national infrastructure plan. The bulk is either in energy or transport and the projects in energy are largely reliant on private financing. So the key to whether those £400bn of project happen is going to be a result of consistent energy policy that generates the confidence that the private sector can invest. That is one of the biggest challenges we face.

Can the new Infrastructure Commission play a role in tackling this challenge?

I see no reason why the commission should be fronting up these issues and be part of the analysis. I think the commission should be able to comment and bring forward analysis and advise on those issues. Remember that my original commission was never a delivery proposal – it was an analysis and recommendation proposal and Andrew’s will be the same. There are others who say it should be a delivery commission but I have never felt that was appropriate – for a start two thirds of our infrastructure is delivered by the private sector which is going to be driven by regulators and private sector investment profiles which aren’t necessarily coincident with what government wants. By and large government can’t make anything happen unless it pays for it –what business wants is a stable environment [in which to operate].

So would another, say, 15 years of Tory administration provide that consistency?

The purpose of the commission is to ensure that there is 15 year of consistent infrastructure policy regardless of who is in power. 


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