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Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF, defines the organisation’s vision for an independent UK infrastructure commission.

Terry Scuoler, Chief Executive of the EEF
Terry Scuoler, Chief Executive of the EEF

“Investment in our infrastructure is critical to the promotion of growth. We therefore need a more strategic, less political, approach to major infrastructure decisions in the UK.

“Positive steps are being taken to achieve this: Sir John Armitt is carrying out a review of the topic for the Opposition and the Government is looking into making more use of independent expertise in shaping infrastructure policy. This is good news. There is too long a track record of damaging prevarication and policy reversals on issues like airport capacity and nuclear power in the UK.

“Quality infrastructure underpins the ability to do business and compete in a globalised world. It enables manufacturing firms to source raw materials and components, fuel industrial processes, get products to market and internationalise their operations. This is especially important for UK manufacturing given the extent of foreign ownership. It is all too easy for companies to compare the UK’s approach to infrastructure (often unfavourably) with that overseas.

“At the heart of the problem is the ability to make and stick to decisions on long-term issues. We struggle to forge political consensus on issues like airport capacity or investing in our roads. An independent infrastructure commission, along the lines being considered by the Armitt Review, could help overcome this issue. A similar body already exists in the Committee on Climate Change whose recommendations government follows.

Such a body looking at the UK’s infrastructure needs could institutionalise the benefits of independent analysis and apolitical perspective. However, for such a body to be acceptable and effective, two key criteria would need to be met.

First, the new body would need to be strictly advisory, with decisions remaining firmly with politicians. Major infrastructure decisions often involve getting the balance right between competing objectives, such as trade-offs between economic and environmental considerations. A lack of legitimacy would hinder rather than help build and sustain a stable approach to controversial issues.

Second, the commission would have to have the right of initiative. It would be hamstrung in tackling politically controversial but pressing issues were it only able to deliver advice at the request of government on an agenda set by government. To be effective, it would need the power to initiate inquiries into subjects of its own choosing at a time of its own choosing.”