Taking the politics out of infrastructure – good luck with that

Victor Anderson

One of the many dangers of Brexit is that it diverts attention from other issues. Two issues currently needing attention are climate change and the future of UK infrastructure. These two issues are best considered together, something which doesn’t often happen at the moment.

The National Infrastructure Commission, which David Cameron intended to give more power and influence to by legislating to put it on a statutory basis, has simply been given an extended and more powerful remit by Theresa May without going through parliament. The unsurprising result is that this important piece of our political system has received far too little scrutiny.

One place to start any scrutiny is by looking at who runs the commission. The chief executive, Philip Graham led the team supporting the Davies Airports Commission, which recommended the expansion of Heathrow. The deputy chair, Sir John Armitt was one of six members of that commission. The chair, Lord Adonis has repeatedly gone on the record as an enthusiast for Heathrow expansion.

There is no suggestion of corruption here: simply of a shared mindset, signalling alarm for anyone who believes that infrastructure planning should take the environment into account. Expanding Heathrow is environmentally the worst option. It would add to traffic congestion and therefore air pollution; cause noise nuisance for many thousands of people living nearby; increase carbon emissions and impact climate change impacts.

The fate of the Davies Commission carries an important lesson for the NIC. Davies was supposed to ‘take the politics out’ of airport expansion. The commission published their report recommending Heathrow in July 2015. It proved highly controversial, and was attacked by the London mayoral candidates in the May 2016 GLA election. Heathrow expansion still hasn’t happened. This suggests ‘taking the politics out’ of major infrastructure decisions is not as easy as the Davies Commission hoped – and now the National Infrastructure Commission is setting out with a similar approach and a stated intention to build ‘national consensus’ around the highly controversial issues of transport, energy, waste and water.

Central to the National Infrastructure Committee’s task will be carrying out an assessment of the ‘need’ they believe exists for new infrastructure. They have rightly rejected the old discredited ‘predict and provide’ approach which simply extrapolated curves for car miles travelled, aircraft passengers, energy consumption, and so on. They recognise that technological change may change the shape of these curves, and they are bringing some sophistication to their task – but it is still ‘predict and provide’. There is no sense in their documents, so far at least, that what is predicted may be undesirable and that as a society we might choose to change course, deliberately seeking alternative options to always building more infrastructure.

The commission is required to work within a ‘fiscal envelope’ limiting the total expenditure they can recommend each year. However there need to be some more envelopes. If the NIC is to make its recommendations consistent with the Climate Change Act, it will need to work within a carbon emissions envelope, showing for example how its views on airport expansion square with efforts to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. If the NIC is to be at all realistic, it will also need a land-take envelope, because infrastructure decisions cannot sensibly be taken in isolation from decisions about competing possible uses for the same land, such as housing and agriculture. The NIC also needs envelopes for biodiversity and air pollution. Each proposal it makes should be accompanied by an assessment of the implications of its ideas for each of these envelopes, and not just the financial implications alone.

Another part of the assessment the commission should make is rarely mentioned: distributional impact. Who benefits? High-speed trains, for example, disproportionately benefit higher income people, whereas those on lower incomes would benefit more by the money being put into bus services. Another way in which ‘taking the politics’ out of infrastructure decisions will need a lot of good luck if it is ever going to work.

  • (will not be published)

Please read our community standards