Sir John Armitt speech to All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure

Published: 12 Feb 2020


Portrait of Sir John Armitt

Sir John Armitt addressed MPs and Peers at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure in the House of Commons, saying that ministers should take their “golden moment of opportunity” to make firm decisions on developing sustainable infrastructure beyond HS2 and accelerate existing planned projects as part of the government’s forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy.

The full text of his speech is below – check against delivery

“Financial Secretary, Chair, My Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen, thank you for being here. The fact so many have gathered reflects a recent surge in interest in how the UK’s economic infrastructure can help meet our future challenges, and I am glad to have the opportunity to briefly share some thoughts with you on the best way of meeting those challenges.

As reflected in this week’s announcement on HS2, it feels like we stand at a moment of great promise: of which more in a moment.

It is 583 days since the Commission published the UK’s first ever National Infrastructure Assessment. In that document, we set out a series of detailed and fully costed recommendations as to how the government should develop the UK’s energy, transport, water and technology networks over the next thirty years.

These proposals included giving additional powers and significant funding between now and 2040 for city leaders to improve their local transport networks. We also proposed a national flood resilience standard by 2050; and ramping up trials of hydrogen production with carbon capture and storage, to move the UK towards a clear strategy for decarbonising heating. Government also faces significant decisions about how to strike the right balance between nuclear and renewable power sources, as we continue to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

A number of these policy areas have a clear relationship with efforts to ensure the UK achieves net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest. Urgent decisions are needed now for us to stand any chance of hitting that target. Our proposals also seek to improve quality of life and economic opportunities for people right across the country.

Government is bound to give a formal response to all recommendations made by the Commission, and to explicitly state whether it will adopt them as policy. The value of the Commission is that we are appointed to stand independent of government, and free to take the long view on how investment should be prioritised. Of course, final decisions on such questions are for Ministers and Parliament; we only advise. But I am pleased to say that, of the 45 recommendations the Commission made in other reports to government prior to our overall Assessment being published in 2018, 42 were accepted by government: a 93 per cent success rate.

Since then, one or two political events have dominated minds – and perhaps some hearts – and we have seen slow progress in the formulation of a formal government response to our Assessment.  We are also awaiting responses to further studies we have conducted since, such as reports on the powers and priorities of our utility regulators, and the future of freight transport.

While we avoid being led by the political twists and turns of the day, the Commission is not ignorant of the challenges facing our elected representatives. We understand that recent months have not always offered the best environment for making sound decisions on significant long-term spending commitments.

But after more than 18 months of delay, we hope the stage is now set for a truly transformative strategy that will prove worth the wait.

In recent weeks, we have seen promising signs of renewed government ambition linked to some of our recommendations, such as the national roll out of full fibre and steps to encourage more rapid take up of electric vehicles.

There have also been suggestions of more ambitious spending than the fiscal remit the Commission was given to base its recommendations upon in 2016.

We will be eager to see how much of the promised £100 billion of additional infrastructure spending over this Parliament will represent a genuine increase on the limits we were set in 2016 – namely to ensure our recommendations sat within an annual public investment envelope of no more than 1.2 per cent of GDP.

But I hope, in present company, I might take the risk of saying that spending money isn’t a substitute for making good decisions.

Few of us would risk calling into a travel agents with our bags packed and holiday money in hand, asking them to surprise us with a destination of their choice. When building hard infrastructure, we need to spend longer deciding on the exact outcome we want and the ways that can achieved. We need to take time to weigh up the different environmental impact and financial costs of those options. But once that is done properly, when we commit, we should commit. That would give us far more chance of sticking to the cost forecast and timelines for delivery.

It is for that reason that I welcome this week’s decision on HS2, and government’s plan for an integrated rail plan for the north, informed by an assessment from our Commission. The precise scope of this has yet to be finalised, but the Prime Minister set out yesterday that the assessment will seek to identify the most effective sequencing of all relevant investments in the north, and look at how HS2’s phase 2b and Northern Powerhouse Rail can work alongside other investments in a cost-effective way. This appears to me to be a sensible way forward at this stage, and supports the idea that what UK infrastructure needs is sound decision-making that informs long-term planning.

Beyond HS2, such an approach also enables greater predictability for workforce planning. At present, there is an insufficiently joined-up approach to infrastructure skills development in the UK, with a wide range of responsible bodies operating across different geographic and political boundaries. The human capital aspects of the National Infrastructure Plan for Skills need to be refreshed to help ensure our pipeline of future workers is adequate for the challenges ahead. As recent figures from National Grid have suggested, 117,000 new recruits will be needed over the next decade in the energy sector alone to ensure the UK meets its 2050 net zero target.

That is why – beyond HS2 – I urge government to take the opportunity provided at the present time to push forward with key decisions sooner rather than later, where due consideration has already been given to the merits of the public investment and any environmental impacts.

To help embed the right considerations at every stage of major projects, last week, the Commission published the UK’s first ever Design Principles for National Infrastructure. These are four principles – climate, people, places, value – that we hope will ensure new infrastructure meets the ambitions we all share for a more sustainable built environment for flourishing communities.

Ministers cannot, and should not, give the green light to plans that are not properly costed and designed sensitively around a clear business case. But equally, levelling up cannot happen without some digging up.

Such work is not all about big and shiny national projects. More money to local authorities for a national programme of pothole filling would represent practical infrastructure, but also perhaps good politics.

Yesterday’s announcement of new funding for buses and cycling is welcome, to help towns and cities become more accessible, sustainable and attractive places to live and work. However, it won’t necessarily be enough to meet demand in the UK’s fastest growing and most congested cities over the next 30 years and beyond.

Cities leaders outside London need new powers and adequate, predictable funding to help them develop long-term strategies and transformative construction projects to improve local transport links and unlock job opportunities.

For instance, in the north west, local leaders will be crucial to helping maximise the benefits that HS2 will bring in terms of reduced strain on other rail lines. Those leaders need the powers and resources to develop enhanced bus, tram, walking and cycling networks around better served train stations, thereby giving them options to help reduce net carbon emissions over the long term.

Elsewhere, communities hit by flooding in recent years, and those constantly living in fear of such events, want a levelling up of flood protection standards and funding for resilience that is not continually playing catch-up with the perils of weather events.

And all of us will appreciate the importance of securing a diverse future energy mix, including a safe alternative to natural gas heating, if we are to stand any chance of reaching net zero by 2050 or sooner.

Each of these areas were explored in the National Infrastructure Assessment and we came to clear conclusions. In a month’s time I hope we will know how government intends to address them, and many other issues.

But a National Infrastructure Strategy worthy of the name requires more than decisions on specific project and policy questions.

The Commission has set out four tests that we say must be met for the government’s Strategy to carry the weight it needs to make a real impact over the next few decades.

Firstly, the strategy must look beyond immediate political cycles and set out the government’s expectations for infrastructure funding and policy up to 2050. It must embrace the spirit of long term thinking that led to cross-party support for the Commission’s creation.

Secondly, it should establish clear goals and plans to achieve them, with explicit ownership of policy and projects by ministers so that they can be held truly accountable for delivering progress.

We’re used to seeing ministers in high-vis jackets and hard hats, but we also want them to adopt a long-term vision and hard noses in making measured decisions that weather political storms. I hope I can count on the support of Parliamentarians here in persistently reminding their colleagues in government of that challenge.

Thirdly, we need to see adequate funding commitments at least in line with the upper fiscal limit the Commission was given as guidance.

And finally, we need a genuine step change in approach. In modern times, the UK has fallen victim to a pattern of prevarication and paralysis on major infrastructure decisions that require a long-term view.

We have also typically held decisions close to the few square miles around this building. Momentum seems to be growing for a radical departure from that centralised approach, and we hope that is fully reflected in the National Infrastructure Strategy.

Next month sees a golden moment of opportunity for government to chart an ambitious but deliverable plan.

A plan that details how the transport, energy and technology of the future will underpin increased prosperity and improved quality of life across the whole of the UK.

A plan that inspires broad consensus across the corridors of this place and beyond.

And, crucially, a plan that is actually delivered.

Thank you.”


Share this article


Recent Articles

We’re recruiting: Policy adviser (energy)
Wind turbine being built

We’re recruiting: Policy adviser (energy)

Are you a creative and analytical thinker, someone who can work flexibly and collaboratively on complex policy issues and build productive working relationships with stakeholders across government and industry as well as with colleagues? Are you interested in helping shape policy on the country’s long term shift from a reliance on fossil fuels towards a...

30 May 2024 By
The pre-election period: 25 May – 4 July 2024
Houses of Parliament

The pre-election period: 25 May – 4 July 2024

In the run-up to the UK General Election, the Commission – like other public sector bodies – is required to act in accordance with the 2024 General Election guidance. The Commission offers independent advice to the government of the day, and it is not appropriate for it to engage in discussion of government policy during...

25 May 2024 By
Principles before particulars secures project success, say NIC design experts

Principles before particulars secures project success, say NIC design experts

The National Infrastructure Commission’s Design Group has published guidance on developing and implementing design principles for major infrastructure projects. Building on the Group’s high level design principles – climate, people, places and value – the new guidance sets out a structured process for applying tailored principles at every stage of a project life cycle. The...

21 May 2024 By

Evidence_Icon_Turquoise Created with Sketch.

Explore data used in the Commission's research, and gain insights from across UK infrastructure

Join our team of professionals supporting the Commission to provide evidence based and forward thinking advice on infrastructure strategy.