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Putting National Infrastructure Comission in law not deemed necessary by government, says Sir John Armitt

The government could yet give the National Infrastructure Commission independence through statutory footing, having reassured commissioners over its commitment to the group, Sir John Armitt has told Construction News.

ICE president and NIC commissioner Sir John told Construction News the government’s view was that the NIC did not require a statutory footing.

On Wednesday, the government revealed it had shelved plans to establish a National Infrastructure Commission in law as part of a revised planning bill.

The decision came just four months after the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill was unveiled, including proposals to give the NIC statutory powers.

A number of industry experts have questioned the revision, saying it sends out the wrong message to the infrastructure sector following the EU referendum.

But Sir John said NIC commissioners had been briefed by ministers and government officials ahead of publication of the bill.

He said: “Their message to us was that they wanted to keep the bill as simple as possible at this stage and that they were not sure whether it was absolutely necessary for the NIC to be on a statutory footing.

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Decisions on approval for Hinkley Point C and a new runway in London will reveal prime minister Theresa May’s attitude towards infrastructure following the EU referendum, according to Sir John Armitt.

Sir John is currently heading an ICE group looking into the potential impacts of Brexit on the UK’s infrastructure market.

The team is made up of industry professionals looking into areas of the industry including R&D, free movement of labour, procurement and codes and standards. 

“We are consulting the industry and drawing up the impacts but also opportunities that might arise as a consequence of Brexit,” Sir John said.

The initial draft reports will be published ahead of the party conferences later this month, with a full report expected before the end of the year.

“I suspect they are starting by saying they are not convinced it is necessary, but will see how it goes and if they think that at a later date they can improve the process by putting it on a statutory basis, they might then make that change.”

Sir John first proposed the idea of a National Infrastructure Commission bound in law in the Armitt Review written for the Labour Party in 2014.

He told Construction News there were a number of benefits to putting the NIC on a statutory footing, including greater security.

“Once something is created formally through the act of parliament it requires another act of parliament to undo it,” he said.

“In that respect it gives it a solidity that it would otherwise not have.”

The statutory footing would also mean certain obligations would be put into law, forcing greater co-operation between the NIC and government departments and setting time limits on government responses to NIC recommendations.

Sir John said the objective of the NIC, regardless of whether it was enshrined in law, was to ensure the government listened and responded quickly to its recommendations.

“Approving and encouraging schemes will be what the government is measured by, not pieces of legislation,” he said.

A Treasury spokeswoman said: “The National Infrastructure Commission has a crucial role to play in setting out the country’s infrastructure priorities and it has already made major contributions to transport and smart power through its first three reports.

“The government’s immediate priority is to support essential planning measures so legislation for the commission was not included in the Neighbourhood Planning Bill this week.”

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