On Monday, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls MP announced during his speech that he was setting up an independent commission to ' to consider how long-term infrastructure decision-making, planning, delivery and finance can be radically improved', later explained by examples such as superfast broadband, nuclear power, a renewed National Grid, wind and tidal power, flood defence, rail and airport projects. All those except broadband and flood defence are currently within the Planning Act regime, perhaps the others should be.
The commission will be chaired by Sir John Armitt, fresh from chairing the Olympic Delivery Authority. Sir John said 'Britain needs to raise its game significantly in the planning and delivery of essential national infrastructure'. Given that, perhaps it could be called the Infrastructure Planning Commission. Actually, I think Britain is raising its game already, but admittedly could raise it further.
He went on to say 'the political system often finds it hard, or even impossible, to build consensus for long-term projects essential for the nation's energy, transport and housing needs'. Now that is a good point - the very largest projects that often span a change of government do have problems with consensus. Someone once remarked to me that the pattern is for one government to authorise these projects (the Channel Tunnel, High Speed 1, Crossrail) and then leave the next government to implement, and pay for, them. Consensus on airport projects is a hot topic at the moment even within parties, never mind between them.
This commission appears different from 'NIPSEF', launched at the Lib Dem conference a week earlier, in a couple of respects. NIPSEF is formed of existing industry bodies and has a cabinet minister as co-chair; this new commission will exist independently of government and is also not related to any existing bodies. Secondly, the focus of NIPSEF is on getting projects in the National Infrastructure Plan built, while the new commission will explicitly look at planning as well as delivery.
Of course the National Infrastructure Planning Association already exists to promote best practice in planning and consenting of infrastructure projects, but it is promising that all the political parties recognise the importance of infrastructure and are falling over themselves to demonstrate that they are the ones to deliver it. What will the Conservatives have to say about infrastructure at their conference next week?