Stephen Hammond is a former Transport Minister and is MP for Wimbledon.
The quality of a nation’s infrastructure is a critical determinant of its economic development. The urgent need to invest in the critical maintenance and enhancement of our infrastructure networks has sparked a debate: do we have the institutional framework that allows longevity in investment to be enshrined? Politicians talking about institutions and the need for change are invariably a public turn-off. In some cases, however, institutional reform could drive a step change, either in policy or delivery.
In the UK, the extent of Government involvement in infrastructure varies significantly, depending upon whether it is power, transport, housing, or broadband. In some sectors, the Government’s role is limited to policy and regulatory framework design and implementation, while in others it is to direct financial investment and project manage.
Whatever the level of involvement, however, there remains a concern that strategic infrastructure decision-making is too often short-sighted, uncoordinated and lacking expertise. The same concerns remain throughout the process, as policy moves into the project delivery phase and future regulatory oversight is needed.
This Government has taken two positive steps – namely developing a National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) which sets out an infrastructure pipeline, and setting up Infrastructure UK, a unit within Treasury that provides advice on the UK’s long term infrastructure needs.
There is still, however, little concentration of expertise; departmental divisions still exist; and innovative financing solutions have not been developed. Moreover, there is the inevitable impression that the Treasury has a final veto in any case.
Now is the time for radical change. A unified Department for Infrastructure could overcome past policy failures and bring coherence and skill to project implementation and management. This department would assume the responsibilities of all other Whitehall departments with respect to infrastructure, namely Transport, Climate Change, the Environment, the Treasury, Communities and Local Government, and BIS. Therefore the new Department would not be established for administrative convenience, but would ensure coherence and excellence in a key Government objective.
To those who might say the last thing Whitehall needs is more government departments – to which I say “hear hear” – I also say there are, of course, two obvious solutions.
First, as the devolved nations get more powers there will be no need for separate departments for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and a single Ministry for the Devolved Nations could be instituted. Next, much of the work done by the Climate Change, Environment, and Communities Department could be combined into a reconstituted Department for Environment with a revised brief.
A Department for Infrastructure would become responsible for any further NIPs, and the advantages of this are numerous. For instance, the interlinking nature of transport, housing, power, and broadband could be taken into greater account when making decisions. The faster roll-out of faster internet connections, for instance, might alter priorities in regards the siting of housing development and new transport services. A consolidated department would bring a more focused and co-ordinated approach to policy areas which are currently diffuse, or subject to competing departments. A more aligned and coherent approach would eliminate confusion and allow stronger leadership on key policy issues and objectives.
A new Department would determine the key sectors and allow for greater project prioritisation, overcoming real concerns about whether just having 40/50 key projects is the right approach. The new Department for Infrastructure would quickly become a centre for expertise and skills, improving both as well as the quality of decision-making in policy development and project selection.
That government is weak in project management and procurement skills is widely recognised. Project oversight has all too often been characterised by indecision and delay, with continual redesign leading to cost increases and delay rather than “on time and on budget”, for example. A new department would allow for better procurement and potential savings through the outsourcing of programme management that would benefit from central management. Equally, if government has a direct role in delivery, project management would be improved for exactly the same reason.
The new department would have several other important benefits. First, it could better assess the impact of likely technological advances on infrastructure projects. The prospect of technological advances is often ignored or improperly factored in. The potential rise of the smart car will cause a reassessment of the capacity of our road network and whether air pollution restrictions might be more easily complied with. The same also applies to cultural shifts, such as the possible impact on peak time travel of growing self-employment.
A new department would also provide a single point of guidance on all legal matters around infrastructure for the devolved administrations and local government. It could also stimulate a better consultation and engagement process with local residents, interest groups, and experts, removing cynicism and reducing delays. Moreover, the department could set and have oversight for the strategic decision-making authority for national infrastructure decisions and appeals.
There would also be a substantial cost saving through eliminating duplicate roles and reducing the need for space within central government. There might even be limited revenue-raising opportunities through the selling off of surplus buildings.
The idea of a combined Department for Infrastructure is one that, in my opinion, must be discussed, and the political parties should consider making a firm manifesto commitment to look at establishing it.