Ed Balls issued a not-too-subtle reminder this morning that the Labour Party’s proposed National Infrastructure Commission would only be as powerful as the chancellor sitting above it.
Sir John Armitt has been working for more than two years on preparing a bill on infrastructure that the Labour Party will push through if it wins power in the general election.
It includes establishing a new national commission to take a 30-year view on UK infrastructure needs, if Labour’s election campaign goes to plan.
Sir John is keen to point out he is “not taking politics out” of the decision making process. Rather he is de-politicising decision making by moving the industry away from cyclical investment and the business uncertainty electoral terms and politicians can cause.
But Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan was quick to latch on to something Mr Balls referred to several times at the infrastructure conference in London this morning.
The shadow chancellor left the audience in no doubt that any infrastructure decisions would be subject to the usual constraints around affordability, and wouldn’t be made by the infrastructure commission alone - the chancellor would continue to hold the keys to the vaults and the future of projects.
Maybe it is a good thing that he isn’t pledging to take ‘brave decisions’ and ‘rip up the rule book’ in favour of getting the UK the modern infrastructure it so desperately requires.
Promises from a shadow chancellor pre-election are, after all, just words.
Today he said it was important to “bind the political process and parties into a long-term view”. He added infrastructure decision making was “not like setting interest rates where you can hand the decision to an individual group” and that the commission would need to “hold politicians’ feet to the fire”.
This should set alarm bells ringing.
In order to be transformative, this commission would need genuine power.
But Mr Balls is at pains to point out that he would be as responsible, nay more so, than his predecessor with the public’s finances if he were elected.
The Treasury has held the power in this government and Ed Balls wants a piece of that.
This industry has superb leaders, including Sir John Armitt, who are capable of challenging governments and the status quo. But it also has multiple industry boards. A Construction Leadership Council. A National Infrastructure Plan Strategic Engagement Forum.
The industry has got better at finding ways to bend the government’s ear.
What we’re less clear on is whether Ed Balls as chancellor would be willing to listen.