Infrastructure planning needs technocrats, but don’t forget the politics

Untitled2This post is by Matthew Spencer, director of Green Alliance, and Julian Morgan, chief economist at Green Alliance.

Technocrats get a bad rap. In the media stereotype, they are calculating micro-managers, bent on controlling the world with little understanding of how it really operates. Yesterday, Sir John Armitt set out a more interesting view of a technocratic commission, peopled by wise, forward thinking public servants set on preparing the UK’s infrastructure for the 2040s. We think it has strong merit, and could help to drive the transition to a lower carbon, smarter UK economy. The fact that Armitt has recognised that carbon and sustainability impacts have to be a central criteria for the commission is a great start.

Armitt’s review helps to explain slow progress on low carbon infrastructure
Armitt’s review of infrastructure for the Labour Party identifies such a long list of shortcomings that it is a wonder that anything ever gets built. Strategic planning, long term thinking and political consensus have all been conspicuous by their absence, much to the despair of the business community.  No surprise then that the infrastructure that emerges from this haphazard process is highly unlikely to represent value for money for the taxpayer, or be fit for the challenges of the 21st century.  It also helps to explain why the largest chunk of UK infrastructure, low carbon energy, is being built too slowly.

Armitt’s solution is to develop a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) which would have the job of identifying the UK’s long term infrastructure needs and publishing  proposals in an evidence-based assessment. Parliament would then vote on these proposals and, once agreed, the NIC would monitor the plans developed by the government to meet them. Naturally, the government of the day could reject the proposals of the NIC, but the assumption is that the political costs of doing so would be high, as such behaviour might smack of short term political opportunism.

Will shifting from ministerial preference to technocratic mandate work?
A technocratic solution to problems of short termism is hardly new. Macroeconomic policy making has been steadily put in the hands of technocrats, usually by newly elected governments wishing to establish their credibility. Operational independence for the conduct of monetary policy was given to the Bank of England by the new Labour administration in 1997, while the coalition set up the Office for Budgetary Responsibility in 2010 to allow technocratic scrutiny of fiscal policy.

The appeal of executing a similar shift from ministerial preference to technocratic mandate to help stabilise infrastructure policy is obvious, but will it work? The technicalities of monetary policy and quantitative easing can seem distant from most people’s concerns, so removing these decisions from ministers is a simpler proposition than it is for energy and transport infrastructure.

A forward thinking technocratic commission could help improve the UK’s infrastructure delivery and provide much needed support for the long run challenge of decarbonisation which tends to get discounted by short termism.

Technocratic function and public engagement should be combined
But there are two big caveats. The first is that the commission does not aim to remove the politics from infrastructure, but instead embraces it.  As one Labour MP noted in response to the review, the UK “is not China” so getting the politics out of infrastructure is neither possible nor desirable.

The Armitt model relies entirely on parliament for its democratic mandate, but public faith in representative politics is at an all time low.  Whipping a vote through Westminster will provide little protection for infrastructure projects that are unpopular, and where the public feel their views have not been heard.

If the commission is to be effective it should combine a technocratic function with a programme of deliberative democracy where the public is engaged in debating the infrastructure choices available to the UK. The French National Infrastructure Plan and  National Commission for Public Debate have used public hearings and evidence sessions to do this with great success.

It’s important to remember that infrastructure is a means to an end
The second caveat is that the commission needs to be clear that infrastructure is a means to an end, and that, to avoid perverse economic effects, it should be able to consider other means to the same end. If it is more cost effective to introduce smart transport software to our cities than to build new train lines or roads it should say so. If a bigger electricity saving programme can avoid new power line construction, it should have the remit for this to be included in its infrastructure plan.

Sir John Armitt and his colleagues have produced a strong case for a new infrastructure institution and it appears to be attracting cross-party interest. It should improve the reputation of technocrats and stabilise political support for infrastructure.

If it is to increase public support, the commission will also need a commitment to public deliberation. The onus is now on Labour, which set up the review, to make sure that it has stronger public accountability and the ability to be imaginative about what the UK economy might need to be successful and resilient in 30 years’ time.

Twitter: @Spencerthink   @julianbmorgan

Recent Green Alliance publications on infrastructure:
Infrastructure investment and the UK’s economic renewal by Julian Morgan, Green Alliance, June 2013
The future of UK infrastructure (infographic), Green Alliance, July 2013

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