We need to capitalise on Osborne's momentum

There was widespread enthusiasm for George Osborne's announcement at last month's Conservative Party conference of the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission, with Lord Adonis as its chair. But what does it all really mean for transport?

Stealing a Labour idea, and a former Labour minister to boot, the chancellor announced that the national need for infrastructure would be considered by the new commission, whose other members have also been announced. It is pretty much the same proposal that Labour had in its manifesto, down to the name of the body to be created.

Sir John Armitt's independent review of infrastructure, which proposed the commission, was widely praised on its publication, but up to the general election it remained a Labour idea. With Ed Balls, who asked Sir John to undertake his review, having lost his seat and a new leadership team in charge of Labour, the ground was open for Osborne to appropriate the idea.

The commission has been given the task of considering three areas by next year's Budget, two of which are transport-related. They are transport in London and the "Northern Powerhouse" (the third is electricity generation). The second of these includes HS3, the proposed northern east-west higher speed rail link.

How will the commission operate? I imagine it will adopt a similar approach to the Airports
Commission, with consultation and the commissioning of expert evidence on what is needed for the different types of infrastructure, leading to recommendations by the commission. That is hard to reconcile with reporting in a mere five months, so it will be interesting to see what is produced by then.

What will it produce? I suspect it will be something like a cross between the National Infrastructure Plan and national policy statements, possibly replacing both. The former has been produced annually by the Treasury since 2010, but is little more than a list of current and future projects, rather than a plan. The latter are required for various types of nationally significant infrastructure projects; they set out the level of need for them with the impacts that project promoters should assess and inspectors should examine when applications are made. They do not usually specify particular locations for infrastructure, though they can, and have done in the case of nuclear power stations and wastewater infrastructure.

Whether the commission will go further than has been the case so far in specifying where things should be built will be one of the most keenly-watched areas of its work. The national policy statement for roads and railways ("national networks") doesn't currently include any spatial policies, even though where transport infrastructure runs and what it connects are its key features.

The commission's recommendations could be quite significant in encouraging or discouraging particular projects from being brought forward. From then on, the process of applying for development consent, construction and operation will probably be relatively little changed.

Is it a good idea? While politics can never be removed from the process of authorising the country's most significant projects, it will be helpful to have an evidence-based longterm recommendation for future infrastructure needs to underpin the inevitably political decisions as to what should and shouldn't go ahead. The commission will also be unfettered by five-year parliamentary terms and will be able to plan over a longer period.

The Tories originally opposed the setting up of the commission, saying that it was too "mechanistic", but seem to have come to the realisation that something is needed. It is interesting that when the current regime for planning and gaining consent for nationally significant infrastructure projects was introduced in 2008, declarations of need were for politicians to decide, and the deciding of applications was to be done by an independent body. Soon it will be the other way round: an independent body will declare need, and politicians will decide individual applications.

There is an important question to ask, though. Why did Mr Osborne take this step? It appears that he has become frustrated by a lack of progress in infrastructure development, including transport. Progress has been slow. So Lord Adonis and also Transport for the North, which will work with the commission, will be expected to make progress and quickly.

The whole of the transport sector needs to build on the momentum provided by an enthusiastic chancellor and the new commission. Political interest will fade as the Conservative party turns its attention to the EU referendum and then to choosing its new leader.

The sector needs to get going if it is to make the most of this massive opportunity.

Reference: Transport Times, November 2015 Issue

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The National Infrastructure Commission will be discussed at our 2 day conference 'UK Transport Infrastructure Summit' on April 12 and 13 2016 in Central London. Find out more here