Balls sets out Labour’s post-Election plan for National Infrastructure Commission

Cross party consensus over plans for a national infrastructure commission can be achieved if government adopted a “more grown up approach” according to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.

Speaking at a conference to launch and discuss a new consultation on ideas championed by Sir John Armitt for an independent body to “end the dither and political indecision on infrastructure projects”, Balls highlighted that the idea was already gaining traction.

“I think that the government could be a bit more grown up about this and think harder about the advantages of a cross party consensus,” he said. “But behind the scenes this report has wide support across political parties, across business. I think that so far we have done pretty well – on a scale of 0-100 we are certainly over 50 and in fact probably closer to 100.”

“For too long governments of all colours have ducked and delayed around vital decisions which are important to our future. We have got to stop kicking these decision into the long grass.” Ed Balls

Balls said the should Labour win power after the General Election in May, legislation would be accelerated to enable the Commission to start work and pointed out that, while cross party support was yet to be achieved, it was possible.

“Sometimes it takes a bit of time to get a consensus,” he said highlighting the time it took to get the current cross party support for an independent Bank of England. “Rather than waiting and landing this as part of a manifesto we decided to have an engaged process of discussion now in a non-political way.”

Labour itself was going to act in a grown up manner, he revealed. Though it had been upset at the abolition of regional development authorities, "the government established the local enterprise partnerships and (if elected) we are going to be evolutionary about things and take that on," he said.

Balls’ view that consensus was building behind the National Infrastructure Commission was supported by former transport minister Lord Adonis who pointed out that a recent Lords debate on the Commission promoted overwhelming support.

“Every single speaker in the debate bar one supported this commission and that included all but one conservative [Peer],” said Adonis. “ And while infrastructure Minister Lord Deighton didn’t quite say he supported it, it is fair to say that his concerns were quibbling over detail and not fundamental.

He added: “I believe there will be cross party consensus and we are as close as damn it now.”

Setting out the rationale behind the new Infrastructure commission Balls said: “For too long governments of all colours have ducked and delayed around vital decisions which are important to our future. We have got to stop kicking these decision into the long grass.”

He used the long winded debate over the UK aviation policy as an example and said that he felt that the Davies Commission’s report should have been published ahead of the General Election and promised a quick decision under a Labour Government.

There were always areas that required political decisions to be made but infrastructure planning was so important that it required a more strategic, cross party approach over a 20-30 year timescale. 

Balls highlighted the ten key issues for the commission which he said set out a path for better decision making and towards this more strategic approach to infrastructure and in particular, he said, how to forge political consensus. The goals to focus on were:

  1. The infrastructure to help deliver more good jobs, stronger and more balanced growth and rising living standards for all
  2. The most connected and open trading nation in the world
  3. The best place in the world to do scientific research
  4. A decarbonised power sector and infrastructure that meets the challenge of climate change
  5. A transport network which spreads growth and prosperity to every part of the country
  6. The most advanced telecommunications economy in the world
  7. The most resource efficient economy in the world
  8. A secure, sustainable energy system
  9. Five cities in the European top 20 for growth between now and 2045
  10. The infrastructure, new towns and urban extensions to ensure 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 and that we are meeting need by 2025.

Whatever the result of the election, Balls said that he would like to see this new Infrastructure Commission up and running and, if necessary, in advance of any required legislation so that the first round of consultation can start within 12 months of the Election.

“The commission would always need to be mindful of the need for affordability and value for money. “It will always of course be down to the government of the day to see how plans fit with in the budget and financial framework.”

“I am hoping that today will start the discussion about those ten ambitions and goals,” he said. “I think that we have shown we can deliver in the required cross party consensual way and we will need that same drive over the next 30 years across the wide and ambition frame so that we don’t let future generations down.”

[Pinsent Masons' Robbie Owen writes]

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