The regions must grasp the NIC nettle

After last week's Autumn Statement Peter Campbell looks at the ways that regions can grasp new opportunities. 

As the Bible tells us, physician heal thyself, something which we all take to mean that those with the power to accomplish something should use that power to help themselves for the eventual greater good. There was a significant lesson in this for everyone involved in the development and delivery of infrastructure in chancellor Philip Hammond’s first, and last, Autumn Statement last week.

One of the genuinely new announcements that was made was that, following a specific study by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) last year, the government accepted the NIC’s recommendation regarding the importance of an East-West corridor linking Cambridge and Oxford.

Furthermore, the government “…will provide £27 million in development funding….will also bring forward £100 million to accelerate construction of the East-West Rail line western section and allocate £10m in development funding for the central rail section.”

Time taken from announcement of study to recommendation to decision? Eight months. Compare and contrast this with the time (decades) it has taken for the government to adopt the recommendations of, not just the Davies Commission, but also numerous other enquiries, white papers, and studies.

This announcement produced a cacophony of howls from the English regions, which felt that this was once again the South East getting the pick of the spoils, while the areas further from London had to make do. In an Autumn Statement that did not contain any real promises of extra support for schemes such as the Northern Powerhouse, and earlier announcements of a rolling back of measures like the electrification of the Great Western Railway to the south west last week, there is some justification in this.

There is, however, cause to hope that this will not always be the case and that the rest of England could very soon be seeing its share of funding for infrastructure increase. What we have seen in the Autumn Statement, though very few seem to have identified the significance of it, is that the NIC’s recommendations do seem to be taken seriously by the government.

Think about it for a second. As I have already stated, the NIC began its inquiry into the East-West growth corridor in March this year. This is exactly the kind of thing that the infrastructure community has called on for years: robust evidence-based investigations that give politicians the ammunition they need to push ahead quickly with projects.

The NIC has also just concluded a (very short, admittedly) consultation exercise asking for suggestions on what specific studies it should seek to undertake in the next few months. This presents a picture of a body that is very open to representation and one that will seek to investigate those projects that put forward the best cases.

This provides a massive opportunity for local and regional authorities, developers, engineering firms, and other stakeholders to put forward their ideas as to what the NIC should study and make proposals on what they deem to be worthwhile. It now behoves those interested parties to make sure they are fully engaged with the NIC to ensure their voices are heard and they are aware of the kind of things the commission is looking to look into.

Any proposals put forward must be well thought out, address a specific issue that is confronting the region or infrastructure in question, and be presented with a robust business case outlining the benefits and opportunities of addressing the challenges that are being proposed for investigation. Then there is the realistic hope that the NIC might decide to look into it and report back to a grateful and responsive government.

This is the silver lining that authorities up and down the country could and should choose to take from the Autumn Statement. It is clear that there is some disappointment about the lack of announcements that were forthcoming for the areas outside London and the south east, however rather than relinquishing the battlefield, this is exactly the time to stand up and make the case again that the Northern Powerhouse needs investment, or south west rail electrification should continue, etc.

It is clear that the NIC is listening and that the government is listening to the NIC. It would be silly to miss this opportunity to heal thyself, and there might never be a better opportunity to do so!

Peter Campbell is a senior policy manager at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.