Why was National Infrastructure Commission dropped from key planning bill?

The Neighbourhood Planning Bill published this week should have included measures to make the National Infrastructure Commission a statutory body. It didn't. Julian Francis looks into why.

If you are someone who is a keen reader of government bills, and I confess that I am one of them, you will have noticed a startling omission from the Neighbourhood Planning Bill that was published on Wednesday. This bill was meant to be the delivery device that would have given a statutory footing to the National Infrastructure Commission but upon inspection I discovered that all mention of the NIC had been removed.

At first glance, I must confess to a little concern about the future of an organisation that we as an industry had fought so long to see established early this year. The Osborne effect seemed to have struck again. Essentially, any major policy initiative that has been championed by George Osborne has suffered from a downgrading of support by the May government and my concern was the NIC may have been headed for the scrap heap.

A couple of calls to people in the Treasury later and I was much calmer then I was earlier in the day. There are some genuinely valid reasons as to why the NIC has not been included in this bill that help shed light on government thinking. 

The bill as originally formatted was entitled the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill and sought to combine two very separate functions within its pages. Alongside the NIC, the bill also contained plans for the privatisation of the Land Registry but it seems that the government has reappraised the desirability of that proposal. It was, therefore, felt to be more effective to split the bill into two allowing the remaining clauses on planning to proceed as the new Neighbourhood Planning Bill and the infrastructure sections to remain for a later bill. 

Treasury has confirmed that the government is very much committed to proceeding with the NIC and will be looking at ways to do this. The NIC will continue to operate as it has in the last few months and Treasury will continue to be the sponsor department for its work. What they are not able to confirm is whether the NIC will be made into a statutory independent body or remain a non-departmental public body as the May government is reviewing this aspect. Until this is resolved no legislation can progress.

I also think there is a further aspect to all this which needs to be considered as we have yet to fully determine what the proposed industrial strategy will be and how it will interface with the likes of the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan, the NIC and the IPA. I believe that the government  wants to be able to more fully understand how these various strands will function before it takes the step of setting up a new independent government body.  

All of this goes to show that our industry must not become too complacent with the wins of the last few years but must continue to press its case with the government about why long-term infrastructure planning is so important to UK plc.  I know that I will be pushing this case with Philip Hammond just as strongly as we did with George Osborne.

Julian Francis is director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.