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5 October 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 10:54am

If George Osborne was going to take Labour’s infrastructure idea, why did he wait two years?

The UK has a poor track record for getting infrastructure built. By only taking up Labour's suggestion of an infrastructure body now, Osborne has delayed reform further.

By Karim Palant

The UK has a dreadful record of getting infrastructure built. All parties are to blame over decades.

In 2003, Government proposed a new runway at Heathrow, to be completed by 2015. Ironically we now expect a decision on whether Heathrow should happen “by the end of the year”.

In 1974, a proposal was made for a cross London line, now called Crossrail. Similar proposals had been made in the 1940s. It was finally approved in 2008 and I hope to take my first ride on it in 2019.

In 2009, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said the Government would take forward proposals for a High Speed Rail link between London and the West Midlands. After eight years, we can be hopeful that next year the legislation on the London to Birmingham section will be passed. It is possible phase 1 may be completed by 2026. I’d be surprised. 

The committee on climate change has been warning for years that the number of homes vulnerable to flooding is on the rise. In our energy sector we have not had the investment needed to have confidence in our ability to keep the lights on. The lights won’t go out – we’ll just spend more to keep them on. The National Grid in the UK is behind our competitors in looking at increasing the capacity for intermittent renewable energy – because there is no clarity from Government. By the time our delayed superfast broadband is in place it will be slow broadband compared to our competitors.

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To tackle this short-termism, lack of joined up thinking and dither the UK needs to take a long hard look at how we take infrastructure decisions.

That was the idea behind the Armitt Commission on how to improve long term infrastructure decision making.

Its history is intimately tied up with Heathrow airport. In 2013 the Government decided – yet again – to kick a decision on a third runway into the next Parliament.  This blatant dither was attacked by Labour. But then Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls also realised that this was not the first or the last time that such a vital economic decision for the country was being ducked by politicians.

He and Lord Adonis agreed that the time had come to look seriously at a way to change this permanently for the better. The Olympics had been a rare example – due in part to the immovable deadline – of the UK delivering major infrastructure not just to time and to budget, but quickly. Just 7 years passed between the July 2005 decision and the 2012 games. So Sir John Armitt, chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, was asked to look at how we could learn the lessons of what went right.

Sir John was brilliant at getting business and environmental groups, and local Government, on board to contribute to his report. Dozens of submissions and a couple of years later he had a detailed plan of action ready to implement had Labour won.

A draft bill was written and out for consultation. A first draft of the remit that the Treasury would give to the Commission was published earlier this year, as well as two detailed reports on the idea and implementation. This was the Rolls Royce of opposition policy making and Lord Adonis and Sir John Armitt deserve great credit for turning Ed’s idea into reality.

The Government of the day was supposed to draw up overall goals for whatthe country should be over perhaps thirty years. An example is published here.

The Commission – cross party and appointed by consensus, with a chair appointed by the Chancellor or Prime Minister – would look at how to best meet those goals. 

Parliament would approve that plan. Departments would then work with the Commission to come up with a plan for their sector. These too would be approved by Parliament.

Crucially, the Commission would report on how Government was living up to the plan. The intention was that the cross-party nature of the Commission meant all parties would sign up to the plan.

It was hoped that it would prevent the pre-2010 opportunistic politics David Cameron had pursued on Heathrow. An initial decision may be slower as Government could not simply dictate it – but the decision, once taken, would stick.

It was not intended to take the politics out of infrastructure – but to take the indecision out of politics. This body was to have statutory status, real resources, profile and strength. The lessons from the independence of the Bank of England in 1997 were clear. The politicisation of issues like HS2 and Heathrow should happen at the start, when the plan is formulated – so it can be implemented as a consensus project with all sides clear the work has been done to justify the project, as with the Olympics.

The great frustration now is not that George Osborne has taken this idea – or that Lord Adonis may hand him a small PR coup by taking the job whilst remaining a Labour member.

It’s that for the last two years Lord Deighton, Sir John Armitt’s former Olympic colleague, and George Osborne were urged to work with Labour on this.

The two wasted years are a shame. But if this is more than a conference press release then it’s great news for the country. It will be easy to tell – we have a published bill, implementation plan and a draft remit from the then Shadow Chancellor. We’ll be able to see quite clearly where it’s been watered down and neutered. The task should be to hold the Government’s feet to the fire.

We are already behind schedule. George Osborne could have worked with Labour on this in 2014. Labour planned to legislate for this by June had they won. It’s now October. Get on with it George. 

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