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

Published: 1 May 2019


House of Parliament

This is the full text of a speech by National Infrastructure Commission Chair Sir John Armitt to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure event: ‘What should be in the National Infrastructure Strategy?’

Check against delivery.

Thank you, Vicky, for your introduction.

Thanks also to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Infrastructure for arranging today’s discussion and to the ICE – my old stomping ground as President – for hosting.

We are living in tumultuous times. It’s hard for people to think beyond the next few days.

Around Westminster it’s so much worse. Views and news changes every few hours.

And yet it has never been more important to join together and plan for our long-term future.

Long-term thinking and planning requires political consensus.

At the moment, we seem to be a thousand miles from that both in public opinion and political opinion.

Yet, we need to build a country that can unite behind a shared vision. A vision that one would hope can mend fractures in society and build a true sense of community.

To set a clear direction for what sort of country we want to be. To make a realistic assessment of what we need to do to build a prosperous economy and inclusive society.

Britain must shape a new national and global identity. One based on optimism and confidence.

So yes, it has never been more important to plan for our future.

And at the heart of a secure national future is the need to build the right infrastructure.

I’ve said it before – and it bears repeating again in the context of this morning’s discussion – that there is no infrastructure without politics.

That’s why the National Infrastructure Strategy – given everything else – is crucial to building a shared vision for the future.

Indeed, major infrastructure can be a unifying force.

HS2, for example, can reduce the North South divide and – when combined with the benefits of Northern Powerhouse Rail – provide real growth opportunity for the North.

But all too often over the last half century we’ve suffered an endless cycle of delays and uncertainty in the development of our essential infrastructure.

That’s why together the Commission, and the APPGI, must be resolute in our determination not to be swayed by today’s gusts and eddies of political uncertainty.

Of course, short term considerations will always rear their head. Today taking priority over tomorrow. And the urgent always shouting the loudest.

In these febrile times, that risk of being drowned out has never been greater. We must ensure the rational, considered, researched view is heard.

All of us here need to find our own voices and call out that short term opportunism whenever we hear it or see it.

The long term is inherent to infrastructure, something I can attest to from decades working on projects like High Speed One or the Olympic Park.

The power sources, transport systems and digital networks on which we all rely only happen as a result of many, many years of careful planning, consultation, design, funding, financing, construction and delivery.

Even where projects do get off the ground, such as Crossrail, they are still at the mercy of short-term thinking and decision making.

But infrastructure doesn’t ‘do’ short term.

That fact was finally recognised when the National Infrastructure Commission was born – a Labour idea eventually delivered by a Conservative government. To be the official, independent adviser to government.

So, what have we achieved to date?

We’ve driven forward progress on Crossrail 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, mapped out a vision for the Cambridge-Oxford Arc, and made the case for smart and flexible power, 5G telecommunications and better data.

But the culmination of our work to date has been the first National Infrastructure Assessment, published last summer. We think it is a strong foundation stone on which to build this new approach to how we ‘do’ infrastructure in the UK.

So, let me remind you of the headlines from that Assessment.


Broadband digital technology is not a luxury, it’s an essential utility. As fundamental to business and our daily lives as water and electricity. And while connectivity is now the norm, it’s only a matter of time until we reach the limits of what our current network can provide.

We say the UK needs a nationwide plan led by government to deliver full fibre broadband to all homes and businesses by 2033.

Whilst the private sector should deliver much of this, the government needs to set a deadline and support investment, especially in places such as rural communities.


The environment and climate change has dominated headlines for much of the last few weeks.

I recall that 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and a man almost 40 years her senior – Mark Carney – were both making the same point on the same day about the need for urgent action.

Creating a low carbon economy is also central to our Assessment. And our analysis has produced bold, clear, achievable targets.

We set the government the challenge of moving to 50 per cent of our electricity coming from renewables by 2030.

We cannot be complacent.

The Offshore Wind Sector Deal is a positive step forward – not least in securing the UK’s position as a world leader in renewables technology, as I saw on a recent visit to Humberside.

But there needs to be similar momentum built up, and a change of government mindset, around onshore wind and solar. We need to ensure a rich mix of renewable sources of energy.


We also want the government to accelerate the shift to electric powered transport, with 100 per cent of new car and van sales electric by 2030.

Our Assessment called for a truly national, visible charging network. Only then can we reassure consumers and address their biggest fear – range anxiety.

That king of the petrolheads, Jeremy Clarkson, has turned full circle. He has been wildly enthusiastic after reviewing some new electric cars. But he nails the emotional fear many people feel:

One day, if charging points are as reliable and as common as petrol pumps, and top-up times have come down to minutes rather than hours, then you can make the plunge. But now? No. You’d be mad.”

I don’t agree of course. But you see his point – so we need to make it happen, and get the charging infrastructure in place.


On transport, we proposed that £43billion additional funding and new powers be devolved to city leaders and Metro Mayors.

This recommendation is about giving our cities the capacity to make long-term plans to improve local transport which in turn will boost productivity and growth.

Devolved powers and budgets to match. That would truly represent a major shift in thinking if reflected in the government’s response to our report expected later this year.

Indeed, as we’ve taken the Assessment ‘on the road’ these last few months, we’ve found overwhelming support for this recommendation among city leaders and officials.

Now that’s just a gallop through some of the main recommendations in the Assessment, but I hope it reminds you of how ambitious, and all-encompassing, our work has been.

We hope that Ministers will respond directly and positively to the creative vision set out by the Assessment, and avoid the temptation to rethink its recommendations, or worst of all – offer only warm words.

But we are not going to just sit back and await the Chancellor’s announcement of the National Infrastructure Strategy – now expected at the time of the autumn Spending Review.

The Commission will be writing to the Chancellor to be explicit about the tests the Strategy will need to meet if it is to be credible.

In short, feet must be held to the fire.

The government must send a clear signal that it is serious about giving the UK the world-class infrastructure the economy will need up to 2050.

The government may disagree with some recommendations – and of course, it is entirely within its rights to do.

And if it does disagree with us, then we would want it to have the courage to say so clearly, to explain the evidence on which it has reached its view and to come up with deliverable alternatives.

In coming weeks and months, we will be talking extensively to government departments to press home the case for our recommendations and understand how they are responding to them, as well as talking at events like this, and in the media.

But, we can’t do that alone. With the government’s strategy just months away, now is the time make your voices heard.

We need to hear the supportive voices of all of you in the room, and others around the country.

If you think the recommendations in the Assessment represent the right approach for the UK, then you need to be vocal – to ministers, to your supply chains, to the public, in the media.

And you need to make clear to the government that you see the National Infrastructure Strategy as a critical test of credibility. If they fudge it, or just provide a list of what the government’s already doing, you will be watching.

Given the importance of infrastructure to the UK’s economy – and the opportunities for UK businesses and industries to lead the way in global markets for existing and emerging technologies – we can’t afford to be shy.

All of us in this room know the real prize for our nation’s prosperity is to be found in committing to long term goals …

Applying ourselves to the hard yards of building consensus …

Showing bravery in making the tough decisions about major infrastructure projects, that will improve national life for all.

And for generations to come.

Over to you.

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