Brainstorm in a teacup

‘Bold wine in new bottles’ is a punny phrase that encapsulates the UK’s verdict on the flurry of infrastructure initiatives announced last month by George Osborne, the country’s Chancellor. Few observers have ignored that his plan for “building a new Britain” rests on ideas first developed by his political opponents. But many believe he is putting them forward with refreshing determination and confidence. 

One such idea is the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), an independent body tasked with assessing the country’s long-term infrastructure needs, identifying key projects and holding the government to account. The concept is not new: indeed it comes straight out of Labour’s manifesto. Its roots lie in recommendations shaped by John Armitt, whom the party commissioned in 2012 to undertake a review of infrastructure planning in the UK. Osborne didn’t even bother to change its name. 

But the Chancellor was right to adopt the idea. All of the UK’s main parties agree that the country needs better infrastructure. Yet despite National Infrastructure Plans having been unveiled every year since the Chancellor came to power, little headway has been made in getting the building done. Mainly this is because politics got in the way. The NIC, sensibly, aims to insulate the delivery of infrastructure from the vagaries of political cycles. It will be chaired by Lord Adonis, a former transport secretary, schools minister and Labour whip described as a neutral technocrat rather than a politician. In many respects, he’s fit for the job. 

What’s less clear is whether the commission will have enough teeth to make a real difference. Armitt recommended that an independent NIC report to Parliament. While details still have to be fleshed out, however, it appears as if it will instead answer to the government. 

The review also suggested that the commission should have power over spending departments and economic regulators. But insiders we spoke with saw little chance of this happening: voices from across the spectrum are calling for infrastructure decision-making, ultimately, to remain the purview of politicians. This raises questions as to whether the NIC will be any more than an advisory body, similar to Infrastructure UK but more objective. 

Evidence of this may not present itself just yet. From Osborne’s point of view, appointing Adonis was clever for more than one reason: both of them support large projects currently on the government’s radar, such as the UK’s second high-speed rail line (HS2) and a third runway at Heathrow, so initially the NIC will likely be seen as endorsing the Chancellor’s choices. A real test of the commission’s powers – and independence – will come if and when it disagrees with him on more contentious projects. Will the NIC speak out? Will the government listen? 

The commission’s creation is part of a wider package of reforms aimed at getting more UK institutional money behind UK projects. The government has grown frustrated that the British pension industry, heavily fragmented and intermediated, lacks the firepower deployed by overseas schemes to win tenders and bids in the country. Merging the UK’s 85 local authority pension funds into six British Wealth Schemes, another reform announced last month, is meant to address precisely this.

 It’s a noble ambition. And it’s also right that projects of national significance should remain subject to democratic accountability, rather than be the sole remit of an unelected body. But if the government wants domestic investors to plug more capital into infrastructure, it needs to convince them of its commitment to follow a long-term vision. Some are already feeling more confident: UK institutions count among the main backers behind London’s £4.2 billion (€5.7 billion; $6.4 billion) Thames Tideway Tunnel project, a licence for which was awarded last August. It would be a shame if the Chancellor failed to build on this.