Infrastructure. It’s political

Tom Carpen, planning associate at Barton Willmore.

Following the resignation of Lord Adonis as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), Tom Carpen looks at what might be next for the NIC and the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs.

Infrastructure is political. We know that, we respect that and dare I say enjoy that? Yet there is no doubt in my mind that the impacts of the National Infrastructure Commission and the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime have been profound in re-shaping how we approach infrastructure in the UK in the face of short-term political cycles. 

Between them, they have taken some of the political heat out of complex and contentious decisions without harming democratic principles, tackling how we do long term integrated strategy, how we set policy to address national need, and how we make our decisions in a transparent and considered manner. 

They have not been without growing pains, flaws and critics and both the NIC and the NSIP regime continue to evolve as a result. However, the resignation of Lord Adonis may have caused a few people to put down the turkey sandwiches and turn up the TV over the holidays; I personally had to tune one ear into a BBC interview and the other to my nephew reading the diary of a Wimpy Kid without him noticing I was distracted!

The complexity of infrastructure strategy requires independence, a multiplicity of voices and ultimately clear direction that leads to action. Lord Adonis, Sir John Armitt and their equally respected colleagues at the NIC have, in a short space of time, created an authoritative organisation with a growing constituency of people committed to engaging with the challenges. 

Not only that, they have been able to drive the direction of infrastructure thinking beyond traditional sectors of transport and energy, tackling digital connectivity, housing delivery and more and seeking to build broad engagement extending to a young professionals’ panel ‘beyond the usual suspects’. 

This type of open-minded drive is infectious, and we were delighted to be one of four finalists in its design competition for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor. It enabled our design, planning and infrastructure teams to draw on our collective experience, think critically about delivering significant new development at scale and contribute that expertise directly to the national debate. This type of visionary problem solving can often get caught up in short term political challenges and the NIC is demonstrating an appetite and ability to cut through it without losing the buy-in required to deliver complex projects.

At the front, Lord Adonis was exactly the kind of outspoken and influential voice that was needed to hold the UK government to account on infrastructure delivery and the future needs of the UK.  Chewing the infrastructure fat with my colleague Ben Lewis, we don’t believe that the NIC would have been as successful as it has been if a less vocal, party-loyal peer had been in the hot seat.  

In that regard, Lord Adonis has retained his own voice whilst speaking for many. We feel it is critical that the next chair is willing (and able) to challenge government as the infrastructure needs of the UK will only be addressed if we can think beyond the four to five-year political cycle and party interests. 

Indeed, the government should perhaps take note that despite the significant political changes that have occurred since the 2008 Planning Act came into force, infrastructure planning and delivery has a level of stability and success without which the issues highlighted in Lord Adonis’ resignation letter could have been even more politically damaging for them. 

Tom Carpen is a planning associate at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore