Conservatives 2015: Experts welcome infrastructure commission

Chancellor George Osborne's announcement that a new National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) will be created to advise the government on key projects has received a largely warm welcome from planning experts.

Infrastructure: new commission launched yesterday to speed delivery
Infrastructure: new commission launched yesterday to speed delivery

The NIC, launched yesterday, will be chaired by former Labour transport secretary Lord Adonis.

Angus Walker, partner at law firm Bircham Dyson Bell and chair of the National Infrastructure Planning Association, welcomed the announcement that the NIC would deliver a long-term infrastructure plan early in each parliament, saying that the government's existing annual national infrastructure plans fail to identify the infrastructure "that the government would like to see but which isn't already coming".

Walker added the government may have been prompted to change the system by a lack of applications coming through the current process. "Once they are made, the system works well, but something seems to stop them being made," he said.

Robbie Owen, head of infrastructure planning and government affairs at law firm Pinsent Masons, pointed out that the NIC has been charged with planning for some types of infrastructure not covered by the current nationally significant infrastructure project system regime, such as flood defences and digital and broadband systems. He said the creation of the NIC is likely to improve what is currently a rather "haphazard" system.

Jeremy Blackburn, head of UK policy at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), said that a "cross-party consensus on infrastructure needs, spanning more than one parliamentary term, is vital to progress and reflects our view on the need to take the politics out of infrastructure decisions as much as is practically possible."

Mark Sitch, senior partner at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore, praised Lord Adonis for his "impressive credentials in transport infrastructure and housing". He added: "We would like to see Lord Adonis advise the government on how to improve housing supply - through reappraising green belt land, ensuring greater cooperation between local authorities where there is a large housing need and encouraging local authorities and other public landowners to free up land for housing, economic or infrastructure development."

Alister Scott, professor of environment and spatial planning at Birmingham City University, said the plan for an "unelected super-panel" to be tasked with ruling on infrastructure projects "shows a complete lack of faith in existing government guidance and legislation to build what is needed".

The NIC, Scott added, exposes "the sham of localism" and would "muddy the waters of the current duty to link planning policy with strategic planning issues and combined authority devolution". 

"In a period where many local councils are moving towards combined authorities at the government’s behest, this news completely flies in the face of any suggestion that we are heading for real devolution, with command and control planning alive and well in HM Treasury," Scott concluded.

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