The national infrastructure watchdog has been put on a leash, by Richard Garlick

The National Infrastructure Commission was conceived by former chancellor George Osborne as an independent body that would define the country's infrastructure needs, and 'hold feet to the fire' if they were not met.

But new chancellor Philip Hammond last week dropped the plan to put the commission on a statutory footing, announcing it would instead become an executive agency from January 2017. In his statement, he insisted that the NIC would still "operate independently, at arms-length from government" and be a permanent body.

But the consensus among expert commentators is that the watchdog, although perhaps not neutered, has been put on a leash. Its charter may give it most of the same responsibilities that Osborne had planned, but its lack of statutory status would make it easier to ignore or close down should this or any government begin to find its work awkward or troublesome.

On a practical level, there are also doubts as to whether the commission will be as effective a gatherer of evidence as it would have been had it been put on a statutory footing. Critics say a statutory body would have been more able to require information from regulators, public bodies and government departments.

As originally envisaged, the commission was also to have played a critical role in shaping planning policy. Government-endorsed NIC recommendations were to have formed the basis for reviews of National Policy Statements. It is not yet clear whether the findings of the commission, as an executive agency, will be as influential on planning. But some experts suggest that there is no reason why ministerial statements in support of the NIC’s recommendations should not be weighty planning considerations.

Worldly observers have argued that it is hardly surprising that May’s government should seek a degree of control over such a potentially influential body, rather than create an taskmaster that would consistently put ministers under uncomfortable scrutiny. And obviously there is still much to be welcomed about the establishment of the commission, even in its less powerful form. Its annual £5million budget to 2020 bodes well for its future, in the medium term at least. And the government is at least saying all the right things about the commission’s independence, and emphasising that its ministers will need to treat it with respect.

But history suggests that, when the going gets tough, politicians will take short-term rather than long-term views. That might mean ignoring inconvenient reports from an adviser, or it could involve leaning on an agency to tone down its recommendations. It was precisely because Osborne and his advisers believed infrastructure planning needed to be freed from day-to-day political knockabout that they originally proposed putting the commission on a statutory footing. The commission as created still has a critical role to play in infrastructure planning. But only a confirmed optimist would believe that it will be allowed to operate completely free of political interference.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning //

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