“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

15 July 2014

Labour’s infrastructure commission would be a Treasury-controlled monster



At first sight, Labour’s proposed National Infrastructure Commission seems like another example of politicians lacking in confidence, giving away their democratic powers to unelected ‘experts’ in unaccountable quangoes; taking the democracy out of politics; depoliticisation as authoritarianism.

There is perhaps a little bit of truth in that, at least in presentational terms– through the cult of the ‘independent’, ‘impartial’, ‘expert’, taking an apparently neutral approach to political decision-making.

But the handover of power proposed by Sir John Armitt in his Draft Infrastructure Bill for Labour – backed by Ed Miliband – isn’t so much out of the Whitehall jungle as straight into the arms of its big beast: the Treasury. The Commission would be answerable to the Treasury, appointed (mostly) by the Treasury, told what to focus on by the Treasury, and its plans presented by the Treasury in a form decided by the Treasury.

Its headline role would be to carry out a big assessment of Britain’s ‘need’ for national infrastructure every ten years, looking at the next 25-30 years, identifying areas for targeted investment. And the ‘need’ would be to (a) support long term economic growth in the UK; and (b) maintain the UK’s international competitiveness amongst the G20 nations, both over the following 25-30 years and in the more immediate 5-10 years.”

In other words, this is about what the Tories rather embarrassingly call the ‘Global Race’; keeping up with the Mittals, Li’s and Carlos Slims.

Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of support from the infrastructure industry, and also from some politicians.

John Woodcock, the Labour MP and chair of the former New Labour pressure group Progress, says it “could turn out to be the defining achievement of the next Labour government” and “our equivalent of Bank of England independence.” He adds: This bold move from Ed Miliband to protect critically important infrastructure decisions from the damaging uncertainty of Westminster politics is essential to tackle the terrible British tradition of relying on short-termism and half-measures in planning energy, housing, transport and other infrastructure areas.”

This rather sets the alarm bells ringing about righteously removing important political decisions from the ‘damaging uncertainty’ of our...democracy, but he does have a point in the need for long-term strategic planning when it comes to infrastructure. Also, the Commission wouldn’t be a completely unaccountable, undemocratic quango as Woodcock makes it sound. The House of Commons would have to vote on Commission plans and amend them before they go to government departments for detailed planning.

Nevertheless there is plenty of potential for this creature of Treasury power to become a monster. Under the Armitt proposals, the Commission would prepare an Annual Report making judgements of whether government departments are doing their jobs well enough, and also pronouncing on the state of the regulatory environment.  In other words – providing an alternative government within government, with its roots in the Treasury

As Dan Hodges has quoted an Ed Miliband supporter saying, the Commission is “a Gordon Brown policy... not an Ed Miliband policy”. It was Ed Balls who commissioned the Armitt report, and Armitt is keen to gain support from the government benches for his ideas. You would imagine George Osborne licking his lips if he plans on staying in the Treasury for a while.

But there is something much bigger missing from the National Infrastructure Commission idea, which is any feeling for the land and what we plan to do (or not do) with it. England is now Europe’s most densely-populated country, and with its population set to rise further, the pressures on land are only set to increase. Big ticket infrastructure projects are only one source of that pressure; and the work of a National Infrastructure Commission would only increase the intensity of that pressure.

It reminds me of a lovely passage in the former Labour minister Chris Mullin’s diaries in which he attends an IPPR seminar on airport expansion at which a London Chamber of Commerce 'android' says: "We can't afford to opt out of the 21st Century” - a sentiment which Tony Blair among others has echoed lately. Mullin's pithy response was, "At this rate the 21st Century won't be worth living in."

A central strategy for infrastructure isn’t a bad idea, but first we should form a clear idea of what we want to do with our land, and what sort of country we want to live in. That is surely a task for democratic politics, not for a bunch of infrastructure experts under Treasury control.

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