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UK infrastructure commission is good news for nation's infrastructure deficit, says expert

A national infrastructure commission (NIC) has been set up to analyse the UK's long-term infrastructure needs, UK chancellor George Osborne said this morning.06 Oct 2015

This is good news because "what the UK has been lacking is a coherent, strategic and long-term plan to tackle the nation's infrastructure deficit", said infrastructure expert Richard Laudy of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

The NIC is part of a plan to "get Britain building", Osborne said, according to a government statement. Planning restrictions will be removed from brownfield sites to allow houses to be built; local authority pension funds will be pooled into 'wealth funds' to develop infrastructure development expertise, and government assets will be sold to fund new projects, he said,.

The NIC will be led by former Labour transport minister Lord Andrew Adonis.

Lord Adonis said: "Without big improvements to its transport and energy systems, Britain will grind to a halt. Major infrastructure projects like Crossrail and major new power stations span governments and parliaments. I hope it will be possible to forge a wide measure of agreement, across society and politics, on key infrastructure requirements for the next 20 to 30 years and the assessments which have underpinned them."

The NIC's initial focus will be on connectivity of northern cities, including plans for high-speed rail; large-scale investment in London's public transport; and ensuring investment in energy infrastructure will meet demand in the most efficient way. It will publish advice to the government on these issues before next year's budget, and will begin work on an assessment  of requirements for the next 30 years.

The choice of Adonis is important "because it demonstrates a commitment to get the best brains involved irrespective of political persuasion," Laudy said. "The Commission can't be put together soon enough and item one on the list should be airport capacity and support for Heathrow."

The Commission must be independent of government if it is to have the long-term vision that the UK needs, Laudy said: "If that can be achieved then hopefully the formation of the Commission will mean the painful and expensive political enquiries we have seen will be consigned to the history books."

The idea of a commission was first mooted prior to the last election by Labour, to remove decisions about infrastructure needs from politics, Laudy said.

"In the UK, the lifecycle of major project procurements – from power stations, to roads, to railways – has almost inevitably been longer than the electoral cycle. The UK’s infrastructure has suffered as a result, in the stop-start nature of the decision-making processes for major projects," he said.

Even so, the Commission will have to make some tough decisions, Laudy said.

"The £5bn extra for infrastructure which the government has promised is very welcome but nothing like enough to tackle our infrastructure deficit, which has accumulated over years of under-investment by successive governments.

"So this leads to the questions:  where is the money to come from and who is to pay for it?  While there are many people out there willing to invest in the UK, they will want a return on their investment with a potential impact on fares and taxation," he said.   

"Politicians and the commission will have an important role to play in making the case for improvements in the UK's infrastructure, the benefits to the wider economy and the impact on the public," Laudy said.

The government said in July that it would publish a further iteration national infrastructure plan "later this summer", setting out its priority transport, energy, flood defence, water, waste, communications and science projects.  Laudy commented that the National Infrastructure Plan has been around since 2010, listing out what investments in infrastructure have been undertaken and what needs to be done.  It is to be hoped that the new National Infrastructure Commission helps to take things up a gear in respect of the infrastructure that this country requires.