UK Infra Commission seeks inspiration from unlikely places

In remarks delivered at Infrastructure Investor’s Berlin Summit, Sir John Armitt reviewed existing national programmes and underlined the political nature of infrastructure.

Building the framework for a national infrastructure commission wasn't an easy task – especially given the lack successful programmes from which to get inspired worldwide, Sir John Armitt told the audience at Infrastructure Investor's 2016 Berlin Summit. 

“There were few examples in democracies and none were working,” the man behind the infrastructure of London's 2012 Olympics said candidly but slightly tongue-in-cheekily before taking a look across existing programmes. 

“In Australia, it's been reasonably successful,” Armitt said, but that success depends on incentives from a federal fund that “supports the states when they want to bring forward the right kinds of projects”.

Armitt then went on to mention France, which despite assumptions of strong central control hasn't had a five-year plan since the early 1990s. He also looked to the Dutch, who he argued sometimes get bogged down into too lengthy debates.

“The most clearly defined programme was Singapore's. What they do have there is a 50-year plan for their infrastructure,” he said. “That plan is then broken down into different sectors in 10-year plans, and every 10 years they review and come up with another 50-year plan.”

Armitt presented a proposal for a 30-year plan with built-in 10-year review to the Labour Party prior to their defeat to the conservatives in 2015. Even though that plan didn't survive the political process, the Conservative Party's own proposed programme is now a very near mirror of Armitt's – and features Armitt as one of the commission members.

Key factors for the programme to succeed, Armitt noted, include cross-party political support, a fixed deadline, early attention to governance structures, a sensible budget, a very clear and strong client relationship, and a rigorous approach to programme control and change management.

Constant auditing, robust risk transfer and upside-sharing arrangements with contractors, he noted, had been crucial to build the infrastructure needed for the London Olympics.

“This is only going to be achieved by engineers, financiers and other professions coming together.”

At the end of the day, however, he said infrastructure assets would remain inherently political. One example: the much-delayed decision on whether to add a third runway or not at Heathrow Airport, which he said would likely be postponed again until after the EU referendum.

“You will never take away big infrastructure decisions from politicians,” he concluded.