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Labour-backed commission rules out social infrastructure

Sir John Armitt has ruled out expanding the remit of his proposed National Infrastructure Commission to include social infrastructure.

Speaking to Construction News he said it was important not to “bite off more than you can chew, particularly at the beginning”, including the delivery of schools and hospitals.

He said it was important to ensure early on that the commission’s remit was manageable and did not get a “reputation” for losing clarity on key issues on infrastructure delivery in the UK.

The former Olympic Delivery Authority chairman was speaking after he revealed a draft national infrastructure bill, setting out how the government would legislate to create his proposed National Infrastructure Commission.

Respondents to the draft bill had expressed concern over the exclusion of social infrastructure to the commission’s remit.

But Sir John told Construction News that in the “early days” it would be better to focus on traditional infrastructure projects, with the potential of “bolting on” social infrastructure schemes as people gain confidence in the commission.

His proposals were laid out in his Labour-backed, Armitt Review, which was published in 2013.

Labour on infrastructure investment:

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said the government had failed to attract “large, long term investors” to support UK infrastructure.

He said: “The government talked the talked in 2010 but they haven’t walked the walk.

“It talked about ways it could have large, long term investors coming to support infrastructure in the UK but I think at the moment it has all been rather slow and the pension funds I have spoken to have been disappointed that the government hasn’t really delivered.”

He added: “[Long term investment] is something that makes sense but at the moment there needs to be more government skin in the games than we’ve seen so far.”

Asked whether he backed recent proposals for the creation of HS3, Mr Balls called the scheme was “rhetoric” rather than “reality”.

“HS3 is currently not a project or even a proposal, it’s a piece of government rhetoric and my job is to turn that rhetoric into reality and I think that’s something I’m determined to do.”

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said the Labour-backed Lyons Review was challenging how housing could be linked with infrastructure but agreed that the addition of social infrastructure into the commission’s remit was needed.

“We are thinking about housing as part of this physical infrastructure and the economic and social fabric of the nation is very important as well but that is not what John recommended, he wants to make sure that he keeps focussed on this more broad-based physical infrastructure.”

Respondents to he draft bill had also questioned the future of Infrastructure UK – a division that sits within the Treasury to advise on infrastructure.

Sir John said IUK had “clearly been doing a good job for a number of years” but he said there was potential to merge it into the commission.

“If you put in place the commission then you have to ask the question, what is the relative role of the two?” he said.

“You can see that there are a lot of skills in the IUK that would be beneficial to the commission so that’s why I can see the opportunity to bring the two bodies together.”

Sir John added that this would have to be clarified in the first year of the commission being set up.

He said: “IUK does specific jobs for Treasury and clearly Treasury might wish to retain some elements of those skills as a body on its own.

“But that’s the difference: IUK sits very firmly within Treasury, whereas the commission would be outside the Treasury.” 

Mr Balls said he would talk to Treasury about the potential for IUK and the commission to merge together but insisted that no decisions had been made yet as to what this would look like.

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