The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was created on 5 October 2015 and formally launched by George Osborne on 30 October 2015 at the National Railway Museum in York.  The location is not a coincidence as the first of three projects the NIC is looking at under its terms of reference is "future investment in the North's transport infrastructure".

The NIC

The Government proposes to establish the NIC as a non-departmental public body by passing a new Act, which will set out: its primary duties; how it will be governed (by a chair and a group of commissioners supported by a CEO and a Board); its funding by means of a Treasury grant; and its powers to request information from other government departments and regulators.

National Infrastructure Assessments and specific commissions

The NIC will produce one National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) each Parliament (i.e. every five years), analysing the UK's strategic infrastructure needs and priorities over a 10-30 year horizon.  The Government will have to respond formally to the NIA's recommendations, but does not have to accept them – although if it disagrees, it needs to set out its reasons and outline what alternative measures it proposes.  The NIC will then hold the Government to account for taking forward the plans that result from the NIC's work.  So although the NIC only recommends, not implements, its recommendations will carry a lot of weight.  If endorsed by Government ('Endorsed Recommendations'), they will become government policy.

As well as the five-yearly NIAs, the NIC will be given specific commissions to look at the most pressing and significant infrastructure challenges.  In future these will likely be identified in the NIA, but for now, the Government has tasked the NIC with examining three issues:

  1. Future investment in the North's transport infrastructure
  2. London's transport infrastructure
  3. Delivering future-proof energy infrastructure

The rest of this article looks at the first of these.

Connecting Northern cities

There are two stages to the NIC's review:

  • Gather evidence and identify the options for future investment in the North's strategic transport infrastructure with a view to improving connectivity between cities, particularly east-west across the Pennines
  • Evaluate the evidence, in consultation with the Department for Transport (DfT) and Transport for the North (TfN), then provide independent advice to government on its view of the future investment priorities.

Gathering evidence and identifying options

In stage one, the NIC will work with the DfT and TfN, building on the work they have already done, and are continuing to do, on the Northern Transport Strategy (see our article).  It looks like the NIC will be taking a more strategic approach, looking at each option and evaluating the strength of its strategic and economic case, in line with HM Treasury Green Book principles and looking at options for funding and financing that minimise the burden on taxpayers and ensure that those who benefit bear a fair share of the cost. 

The NIC issued a Call for Evidence in November, which closed on 8 January 2016.  This asked:

  1. To what extent are weaknesses in transport connectivity holding back northern city regions (specifically in terms of jobs, enterprise creation and growth, and housing)?
  2. What cost-effective infrastructure investments in city-to-city connectivity could address these weaknesses?  We are interested in all modes of transport.
  3. Which city-to-city corridor(s) should be the priority for early phases of investment?
  4. What are the key international connectivity needs likely to be in the next 20-30 years in the north of England (with a focus on ports and airports)?  What is the most effective way to meet these needs, and what constraints on delivery are anticipated?
  5. What form of governance would most effectively deliver transformative infrastructure in the north, how should this be funded and by whom, including appropriate local contributions?

Independent recommendations

Stage two of the NIC's review involves it giving government a set of independent recommendations on future transport investment priorities in the North, "stress tested" under a range of affordability scenarios and highlighting any major gaps in evidence.  So how does this fit with the prioritised list of scheme options that the DfT and TfN have to present to the Chancellor by Budget 2016?  It looks like the government will use the NIC's recommendations to "make an informed choice...when it receives proposals from TfN and takes future investment decisions".

It therefore makes sense for TfN to be working as closely as possible with the NIC when drawing up its final Northern Transport Strategy and making sure that the proposals that strategy puts forward can be backed up by clear evidence and stand up to financial scrutiny, so that they marry with the NIC's recommendations.