A busy body
One week after Chancellor Philip Hammond outlined his plans for the country in the Autumn Statement, Clyde & Co held a seminar in which I interviewed the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), Lord Adonis.
But what did we learn from him about the future direction of the organisation – no longer set to be a stand-alone entity underpinned by legislation, but instead an executive agency of the Treasury.
On this point, Adonis was clear: “I don’t think the NIC not being statutory will make much difference. It will stand or fall by the quality of its advice.”
Pressed on this point, he insisted that the quality of advice was what counted, and not who was setting the terms of reference or whether it was responsible to Parliament or the government of the day for that advice.
While this may be true to an extent, it is difficult to get away from the feeling that a Treasury agency will not have the clout of a truly independent body – although again, Adonis pointed out that no decisions based on infrastructure could be truly devoid of politics.
So what of the Autumn Statement? Given that it had plenty of mentions of infrastructure, it is fairly clear that the NIC will be kept busy over the years to come, regardless of its technical status.
“The Autumn Statement was a move in the right direction,” Adonis told the audience. But again, he was quick to point out that it will be the actions that are taken that count, rather than the number of times Hammond said the word in his speech.
And on this point, he suggests things may be rather hard to predict. “The big thing about the Autumn Statement is the unknown,” he said. “Every time I look at Brexit I worry.”
Given that one of the main tasks of his body in 2017 will be establishing thee National Infrastructure Assessment, setting out the needs for the country over the next two decades and beyond, you can see why the huge uncertainties that Brexit has created do not sit well with Adonis.
“We couldn’t be in a worse position with Brexit but although it will have a big impact on growth and population, with such a backlog of infrastructure we need investment come what may,” he said. “It may however have a big impact on financing and funding but we won’t know until it happens.”
At the end of the event, Adonis made an impassioned plea to those in the room that they need to keep “banging the drum” for infrastructure, saying that he industry needs to keep things simple. The commission’s recommendations have so far generally been welcomed by the government.
But while Adonis suggested the ‘litmus test’ for the government would be over its ability and willingness to make a final decision on air capacity – be it Heathrow or elsewhere – it appears clear that the litmus test for the NIC will be if and when it makes recommendations that the government of the day finds less palatable. Given its status as a Treasury agency, it may be that such a day will never come.
Whether or not he puts his name in the ring to become the permanent chair (a question he dodged during the discussion), Lord Adonis is clearly a strong advocate to have in the infrastructure corner.
Having been the man “banging the drum” for the creation of the commission in the first place – way back when he was a shadow minister ahead of the last election – it is to be hoped that he and others involved in the commission will not let it fall into the background as shifting economic sands and changing political whims dictate.