Can infrastructure ever beat short-termist politics?

Lord Adonis’s resignation as chairman of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission raises uncomfortable questions about the body’s relevance and future.

In October 2015, shortly after the National Infrastructure Commission’s launch, we used our crystal ball to wonder what would happen when the body and the government would start to disagree. We asked: “Will the NIC speak out? Will the government listen?” We may now have answers to both these questions.

There was a lot to unpack in the 964-word resignation letter Lord Adonis sent to Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, as he quit his post as chairman of the NIC last Friday.

The former transport secretary described legislation designed to formally take Britain out of the EU as “the worst legislation of my lifetime”. He also decried an alleged ongoing government bailout of the privatised East Coast rail franchise (which the Department of Transport denies).

At a time when May’s government is coming under pressure from the nationalisation-hungry Labour Party to display the benefits of privately owned infrastructure, Lord Adonis’s claim that the alleged bailout “benefits only the billionaire owners of these companies and their shareholders, while pushing rail fares still higher and threatening national infrastructure investment” offered a stark warning.

Even more worrying was Lord Adonis’s allegation that when raising this issue with both Chancellor Philip Hammond and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, he “received no response from either minister beyond inappropriate requests to desist”.

In a follow-up interview with The Observer newspaper, he expanded on the conflict. “The government threatened the National Infrastructure Commission with non-co-operation if I carried on criticising Chris Grayling’s bailout,” he said. “I thought that was deeply improper since I am an independent advisor.

“Relations with the government had become increasingly tense in recent months because they kept telling me to shut up on Brexit, which I declined to do. I told them my views on Brexit were quite separate from the future of national infrastructure.”

Whether one agrees here with Lord Adonis’s views on Brexit and the alleged bailout is beside the point. A body designed to offer “independent, strategic thinking, analysis and advice” to the government on long-term infrastructure needs was allegedly being threatened by the very people supposed to receive such guidance.

The minister under which the NIC saw light, former Chancellor George Osborne, did not miss the chance to criticise his ex-colleagues, tweeting that he wanted the NIC “to have the bipartisan authority to generate a national consensus over long-term thinking – the key thing UK infra plans lack. It’s vital that’s sustained if NIC is to make lasting impact”.

Unless there is a substantial shifting of thought within the current government, Osborne will have to continue dreaming. After all, Lord Adonis was the second casualty in 2017 from the NIC following the sacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine as NIC advisor in March, again following disputes with the government on its Brexit position.

The NIC is yet to spell out its post-Adonis future, although it almost doesn’t matter if his replacement is unable to impart long-term advice on a thin-skinned government. The irony of an apolitical and bipartisan organisation losing staff due to political disagreements is troubling.

Indeed, the short history of the NIC is symbolic of the conundrum of greenfield infrastructure investment. Despite its noble stated aims, it has been unable to steel itself against the short-term nature of political cycles. Some eight months after being launched, it was announced it would be formed on a statutory basis, providing true independence from government. However, a month later, the Cameron-Osborne axis departed following the Brexit referendum; in came Theresa May and the legislative plans were shelved, with the government confident the job could be done regardless.

Given its status as an advisory body for the long-term, the NIC’s achievements thus far are difficult to judge. But the short-term view is not encouraging.

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