Let’s face it: taking politics out of infrastructure is as easy as taking God out of religion; try as you might, the two simply cannot be separated. Yet while many jurisdictions are clearly still striving to reduce the influence of politics on the infrastructure planning process, a new approach is now emerging that – rather than decoupling politics and infrastructure – focuses on strengthening the relationship between these two inextricably linked realities. And since the release of his official Review of the UK’s long-term infrastructure planning process in 2013, Sir John Armitt has been at the center of this growing movement.
Over the past decade or more, volumes of literature have been written on the need to ‘depoliticize’ infrastructure planning. And indeed, it is easy to point to a litany of worthy projects that have stalled, been delayed or died on the pyre of political expediency.
In some cases, well-progressed projects are killed at the ballot box as new governments take office and ‘clean house’ of any legacy projects that may seem tainted by the previous regime. In other cases, much needed infrastructure decisions have been punted into the next political cycle, often to protect sitting politicians from having to make difficult (and potentially unpopular) decisions.
Taken as cause and effect, one might quickly surmise that infrastructure planning and delivery would be greatly improved if only infrastructure could be wrested away from meddling politicians. On face value, the case for depoliticizing infrastructure would seem obvious.
Many have tried to decouple politics from infrastructure and failed. “The reality is that there is no infrastructure without politics,” Sir John Armitt argued recently. “At the end of the day, much of what we term as infrastructure is focused on providing fundamental services to citizens and – in one way or another – it’s the taxpayers, users and voters that pay for those services, so the cost of delivering infrastructure is always going to be a very political issue.”
With this reality firmly in mind, Sir John believes that – rather than trying to force a divorce on politicians and their infrastructure – governments should instead be focused on building up the relationship. “Politics is simply a reality of infrastructure and the only way to truly reduce the negative impacts of political influence is to introduce smart political processes that bind politicians to a long-term plan,” Sir John argues.
Over his almost 50-year career in infrastructure, Sir John has been intricately involved in many of the UK’s most notable projects. He was the Chairman of the London Olympic Delivery Authority for the 2012 Games; he served as CEO of the UK’s Network Rail; he led the company responsible for implementing the Channel Tunnel rail link; and he helped build the Sizewell B nuclear power station. His efforts to improve the UK’s rail network earned him a CBE in 1997 and he was knighted in 2012 for his work on the London Olympics.
Given his depth of experience and his extensive insight into the political challenges facing the country’s infrastructure sector, it was not surprising that the UK Labour Party selected Sir John to undertake an independent review of the country’s long-term infrastructure planning in 2012. In particular, Sir John was asked to place his focus on finding new ways to improve the country’s long-term infrastructure planning and new approaches for building political consensus around key decisions.
he Armitt Review, which was published in September 2013, made a number of core recommendations aimed at achieving cross-party political consensus, public support and investor certainty. Central to the Review was the recommendation for the formation of a new – and fully independent – National Infrastructure Commission responsible for assessing, planning and monitoring the country’s long-term (25–30 years) infrastructure needs.
What makes Sir John’s proposals different from other approaches is that his plan calls for politicians to take ownership over the longterm decision-making process by allowing them to debate – and then vote on – the National Infrastructure Commission’s 10- year assessments and (at a later stage) the individual Government Department’s proposed actions and investment plans to achieve the stated national objectives.
“By asking parliament to debate and vote on the national assessment and departmental plans, we are essentially binding the political parties to a longterm consensus on what the national infrastructure priorities should be for the next 10 years,” added Sir John. “Once you have that cross-party political buy-in, you can start to create an environment where there is a greater degree of certainty around major projects and long-term investments.”
Sir John recognizes that his plan will require significant political will and effort to implement. Public consultation and engagement will be key. “Politicians are easily influenced by voter sentiment which is tightly linked to engagement – the more you engage the public, the more support the project will likely receive; ignore the public, however, and you are quickly going to find yourself on the back foot.”
Governments will also want to spend more time thinking through the long-term needs of the country and understanding what they want to achieve through their investments. “The weakness in so many of these long-term strategic processes is that few governments or project owners really stop to ask why they are doing what they are doing,” noted Sir John. “The more effort that government can put into debating the ‘why’ at the front end, the better the outcomes of their decisions will be.”
Sir John’s discussions with a broad range of industry players – both in the UK and overseas – also highlighted the need for creating the right governance structure for long-term infrastructure planning and execution. “The reality is that most governments suffer from fragmented ownership of the infrastructure decisionmaking process which means that there are often too many cooks in the kitchen,” added Sir John. “It is critical that long longterm planning be supported by the right governance structure that includes precise responsibilities across the public and private sector.”
Based on his initial Review, Sir John published two further documents for consultation; a Draft Bill that outlines the structure, framework and membership of the proposed commission and a summary of the steps that will need to be taken in order to deliver it. A set of revised proposals and a revised Draft Bill have been completed, ready to be taken forward by the new administration.
“At the end of the day, the focus should be on delivering the infrastructure we need to serve us, our children and our grandchildren into the future and these are questions that don’t often enjoy the level of national debate and political support that they should,” added Sir John. “This isn’t about removing politics from infrastructure, this is about building political consensus on the long-term needs of the country and that is something that all politicians can agree to work towards.”