UK: 480: Armitt Review Recommends National Infrastructure Commission

Last Updated: 16 September 2013
Article by Angus Walker

The Armitt Review was commissioned by the Labour Party to consider improvements to infrastructure planning and delivery. It was published last week by Sir John Armitt, chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority (still). He is also a member of Sir Howard Davies' Airports Commission looking at hub capacity in the south east of England. As a former chief executive of Network Rail and having worked on the Sizewell nuclear power station when at Laing, he has no shortage of infrastructure experience across the sectors.

The review is worth reading because it is an initial indication of what a Labour government - the one that brought you the Planning Act 2008 - might do with infrastructure planning should one be formed after the 2015 election. There are a few new abbreviations to get used to (to be fair, the review gives everything in full, but I like a few TLAs), so put on the cold towel and read on.

The introduction refers to the need for 'a way forward which has cross party support for evidence-based decision making at its core'. That may not have been achieved, since Treasury minister David Gauke said that the Armitt Review 'is a massive own goal from Ed Balls', massive no longer seeming to mean 'heavy' any more.

Adopting a comment that 'no single body in the UK takes a view of what the picture on the front of the jigsaw box looks like', the review calls for the setting up of a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). Despite the similarity in name, this won't be anything like the erstwhile Infrastructure Planning Commission, though, as it will effectively deal with policy rather than applications for particular projects.

The NIC will produce a National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) every ten years, setting out 25-30 years of infrastructure needs across all sectors. The sectors covered would be the same as the Planning Act 2008 plus telecommunications and flood defences.

It sounds like a cross between the National Infrastructure Plan that already exists and an overarching National Policy Statement like the energy one, but for everything. Parliament would then approve this, and each responsible government department would produce Sector Infrastructure Plans (SIPs) to sit below it, referring to specific schemes that the government would support. These would replace National Policy Statements (NPSs) and would generally be location-speciifc, unlike most NPSs. Regulators would have their remits tweaked to be required to further the aims of the NIA and SIPs.

The NIC wouldn't just do some work once every ten years, though, it would assess the SIPs and monitor progress being made on them. The Review looked at equivalent organisations in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada, wryly noting that in Singapore the same party has been in power since 1959 and so 'establishing a political consensus is clearly not the same issue as it is in the UK'.

There is certainly a need to do something better than the current National Infrastructure Plan, which the review says many felt does not represent a genuinely evidnce-based strategic vision for Britain - I would agree with that, it is a description of what is happening rather than a plan of what should happen. Many other countries have an equivalent national debate on infrastructure that is then agreed and implemented, and the NIA will give the UK that same sense of direction. On the other hand, saying that infrastructure has to go in locations x and y might slow things down as unless the SIPs are worded carefully, projects that promoters wanted to go in locations w and z would be resisted, possibly restraining growth (which is a mild form of the present government's 'the market should decide' line).

On balance, though, having something to sit atop the suite of NPSs must surely be a good idea to give the infrastructure industry a better idea of what UK plc wants, as well as when and where.

We have invited Sir John to come and speak at one of our business breakfasts on 22 October to talk about his review, so watch our events page for a chance to sign up to attend this

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