Like the Queen, the National Infrastructure Commission has two birthdays.
The first is 5 October, the day on which George Osborne announced at the 2015 Conservative Party Conference that he was going to follow Sir John Armitt’s advice and set the Commission up (commandeering a key plank of Labour’s economic policy in the process).
But for me, the real birthday is today – 30 October – when in a rather chilly National Railway Museum in York, the then Chancellor actually launched the Commission and announced the names of the first seven Commissioners. That feels like the more important date because the Commission then wasn’t just an abstract idea, but a group of specific people with a specific job – as George Osborne put it, to think “dispassionately and independently” about the nation’s infrastructure needs and to articulate clearly how they could best be met.
I was in the front row for that speech, in which he told how British people had longer commutes, higher energy bills and struggled to become homeowners because of the failure of successive governments to think long-term about infrastructure. And, as the incoming Chief Executive, I knew the task ahead was huge, but my overwhelming sense was that we had an opportunity to do something special.
From the start, my aim has been to establish the Commission as a credible, forward-thinking and influential voice in the infrastructure debate. But achieving that hasn’t exactly been straightforward and the challenges haven’t always been those we anticipated. The organisation spent its formative years housed in the Treasury’s fall-back office space in the City, described by visitors on more than one occasion as akin to a reasonably-sized cupboard. Only four of those original seven Commissioners are still with us, and we are already onto our second Chair. And there have been countless late nights, chaotic days and obstacles to overcome to get the Commission off the ground.
But this hard work is paying off and we have much to be proud of. We have delivered a number of bespoke studies, with our most recent reports examining the economic potential of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Corridor and how infrastructure can harness the opportunities presented by new technologies. And in July, we published our first National Infrastructure Assessment – spanning transport, energy, digital communications, water, flood resilience and waste, and addressing cross-cutting issues like design and financing, this provides a blueprint for the infrastructure the UK needs to flourish over the next 30 years.
We have also undertaken some more unusual but hugely important pieces of work – moving away from just recycling ‘standard’ approaches to a more creative and forward-thinking approach. We have established a Young Professionals Panel to advise and support the Commission. We have carried out detailed research on social attitudes to infrastructure. We have run open competitions on issues from how to design effective communities to the future of our roads infrastructure. Going forward, we will look to build on this – for example, we are currently looking at how we can use ‘deliberative democracy’ techniques, such as citizens’ juries, to inform our policymaking.
We are also making real progress in establishing our credibility – our analysis is grounded in rigorous evidence, which is earning us a reputation not just domestically, but internationally too. Countries across the world are starting to take note of the Commission’s approach, looking to emulate it and inviting us to export our infrastructure expertise.
But having published our inaugural National Infrastructure Assessment, we are now opening a new chapter, in which the crucial test will be whether we are as influential as we intend to be. The recommendations in the National Infrastructure Assessment provide a strong platform to foster economic prosperity, to improve competitiveness and enhance quality of life. But that will only happen if government accepts those recommendations and takes action. A platform is only as good as the structures that are built on it.
Yesterday, to coincide with the Budget, the government published its interim response to the National Infrastructure Assessment, ahead of its final verdict due next summer. We will be monitoring progress closely and working with stakeholders to secure support and build pressure for our proposals to be implemented. In his speech, George Osborne articulated the Commission’s responsibility for ensuring accountability in infrastructure decision-making as “holding our feet to the fire.” As we enter this next phase, whether we succeed in this regard will be the real test.
Philip Graham is the Chief Executive of the National Infrastructure Commission.