Lord Adonis appointment takes political sting out of Tory infrastructure plans

Osborne’s decision to embrace the former Labour Party National Infrastructure Commission as championed by Sir John Armitt should boost political consensus behind critical national infrastructure delivery, says Jackie Whitelaw.

Lord Andrew Adonis

Appointment of former serving minister Lord Adonis as chair of the new National Infrastructure Commission and the decision that it should report to Government rather than direct to Parliament takes the political sting out of what had been described as a “rigid and bureaucratic” proposal in its original form. 

Under the original Labour plans produced by Sir John Armitt the commission of unelected commissioners would have reported to Parliament on national needs and held it to account on delivery.

"Adonis is an inspired choice to head the commission. He is a Labour peer, though resigning the whip to sit on the cross benches, and is one of his parties thinkers and doers, admired byindustry and many in Parliament."

Back in January then Lib Dem local government minister Stephen Williams said: “We have serious reservations about the model proposed by the Labour party. The Armitt review was clearly a genuine effort, from a well-respected source, to find a solution to the long-term infrastructure challenges that our country faces. None the less, its recommendations appear to establish a rigid, process-driven and bureaucratic body. There is a danger that this type of bureaucracy would stifle the innovative process needed to resolve the challenges facing UK infrastructure.”

He continued: ““It is up to Ministers, accountable to Parliament, to set out the infrastructure vision for the development of our country. It is not something we should subcontract to another body; it should be up to us. Our constituents should make representations to honourable members to inform our deliberations, rather than feeling they have to go to a non-elected body to make those important recommendations.”

This seems to be the route Osborne is taking with his version of the National Infrastructure Commission. It is being established as a Davies style commission as was created to make recommendations on new runway capacity for the south east, that can inform ministers decisions rather than dictate them.

Adonis is an inspired choice to head the commission. He is a Labour peer, though resigning the whip to sit on the cross benches, and is one of his parties thinkers and doers, admired by industry and many in Parliament. Adonis drove through HS2 during his time as Secretary of State for Transport and prior to that, as minister for education, he was the architect of the academies programme – which is regarded by many as helping drive up educational attainment.

“And I think that even if the Conservatives are elected they will take forward a similar idea.” Lord Adonis speaking in January 2015

He is also prescient. He predicted, also in January, that the National Infrastructure Commission would rise like a phoenix whoever won the election. Labour’s plan developed by the Armitt Commission for an independent, cross party national infrastructure committee with a brief to publish infrastructure plans for 30 years ahead is part of the understanding that there is much to be done, he told guests at the National Infrastructure Planning Association dinner. “And I think that even if the Conservatives are elected they will take forward a similar idea.”

Adonis also highlighted cross northern transport links, dubbed HS3, and Crossrail 2 for London as priorities – just as Osborne is suggesting in his speech today.

Concerns that Osborne’s establishment of the new National Infrastructure Commission was a way of deferring making a decision about where to put a new runway following Davies’ recommendation in favour of Heathrow appear to be unfounded. The third runway is explicitly excluded from the NIC remit. 

But with Adonis being correct on so much it is worth noting his views on how a government decision might play out. “Sir Howard (Davies) has made it possible for Heathrow to proceed and it will be very difficult in the short term for another option to proceed,” he said at the Runways event in July. 

“But this is absolutely not the green light. It's kind of flashing amber. The only serious option on the table is now Heathrow. But that doesn’t mean it will happen. It is not a choice between Heathrow and Gatwick (for the government) but a choice between action and inaction. And there is nothing more attractive for politicians as inaction or doing something that involves appearing to be further considering the issue but not actually taking a decision that will lead to any action in the short term.”

He continued: “The promise of a decision by autumn, he said, should be interpreted flexibly.  Autumn in government terms can last to the end of the year or well into 2016. It can easily mean next spring or indeed after the next London mayoral election.”

The easiest thing to do is to let the debate run on or instigate new studies particularly around noise and air quality, he said.

At the weekend transport minister Robert Goodwill said there were concerns that the Airports Commission may have under emphasised the environmental impacts of a third runway at Heathrow.

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