The UK government has shown real commitment and leadership in launching the National Infrastructure Commission.
Committing £100bn, including full funding for the £15bn Roads Investment Strategy, could help tackle the nation’s infrastructure deficit.
However, long-term observers in the industry have good reason to be cynical about the importance of infrastructure to the nation’s health, particularly when the large numbers being cited include commitments that have previously been made – but not kept.
Our infrastructure has had years of underinvestment by successive governments.
That said, the announcements today, following on from a succession of earlier developments, including the changes at Highways England, the beefing up of Transport for the North, the questions being asked of Network Rail’s programme and the much-heralded establishment of the NIC, may provide much-needed momentum and commitment.
But the easy bit is the vision; the tough bit is actually delivering. The naysayers will only be silenced when the shovels are in the ground.
Commissioner make-up vital
The composition of the commission is important.
The named commissioners are a high-calibre mix of industry and government experts – we can expect a major step-change in the way Britain plans and delivers its infrastructure.
It’s very positive to see Sir John Armitt among the commissioners.
He will bring a wealth of experience not only from infrastructure generally, but specifically in terms of the work he did for the Labour Party in looking at the concept of a NIC in the first place.
“The naysayers will only be silenced when the shovels are in the ground”
The stop-start nature in the decision-making processes for major projects has also introduced uncertainty into forward planning.
If the new commission can help to mitigate this and deliver some of the major imperatives of the National Infrastructure Plan, then the commission can only be a good thing.
Tough decisions to be taken
The harsh reality is our political system does not lend itself to long-term decisions on infrastructure because of the politically unpopular nature of many of them.
This is where the NIC has such an important role to play.
However, it is only the beginning. The real test will be around implementation and delivery.
Both politicians and the commission will have an important role to play in making the case for improvements in Britain’s infrastructure, the benefits to the wider economy and the impact on the public.
Here, there will still be some tough and potentially unpopular decisions to be made by government.
Most critical of these will be how the necessary spending will be financed and supported.
There are plenty of investors looking favourably at the UK, but they will all want a return on their investment and whether it’s through taxation, tolls, fare increases or asset sales, ultimately the public has to pay.
The government and the commission will have a job of work to do to make the case for investment to the public.
Richard Laudy is head of infrastructure at Pinsent Masons