Does the UK need an Infrastructure Minister?

When we launched the Planning Futures Blog back in January, we made a mistake.  We failed to include a comment section.  This, it was pointed out to us, was a missed opportunity to generate a discourse on the ideas we were presenting.  As a think tank dedicated to nurturing “a new conversation about planning” this should have been a feature from the very beginning. 

We are therefore pleased to announce that today we are relaunching our Blog with a comment section below.  We very much look forward to the debate that this will generate and look forward to a fruitful exchange of ideas.  In many instances, this blog will be used to float new ideas that will feed into future research projects.  This is therefore an excellent opportunity for our stake holders to have their say in the ongoing developments within Planning Futures.

This brings us to the matter for discussion today.  Does the UK need a dedicated Infrastructure Minister?  I would argue that it does, desperately.

In the UK, we seem to have a problem with infrastructure – particularly in terms of the planning and delivery of large scale, strategic infrastructure projects.  The ongoing debates regarding HS2 and the expansion of airport capacity in the South East England are illustrative of this issue.  From the outset, these projects have been characterised by conflict and have largely failed to build a broad consensus amongst the public.

In the case of airport expansion in particular, the failure to build consensus has led to an ongoing – and seemingly unending – series of delays in making a decision on how we are going to meet our needs in terms of airport capacity.

Part of the problem clearly lies in poor practices of consultation and with broader issues of stakeholder engagement.  In many instances, those affected by decisions on infrastructure projects feel that they had little opportunity to participate in their making.  In other instances, decisions on infrastructure projects have simply been inappropriate and not in the public interest.

However, there is another significant issue that plagues many of our decisions on major infrastructure provision and is equally worthy of consideration: an absence of political leadership.

Arguably, what is missing from much of the discourse on large scale infrastructure projects is a clear articulation of their benefits and purpose.  Such projects are often presented to the public on an ad hoc basis and seem detached from the broader agenda of economic development to which they rightly belong.

In the case of infrastructure in general, there has not been a sustained and coordinated attempt to present a vision for the UK’s future infrastructure as part of a broader economic strategy.  Meanwhile, specific projects receive sporadic attention from ministers wishing to avoid controversy and with otherwise cluttered portfolios.

A recent study led by Copper Consultancy has demonstrated that general public support and consensus around infrastructure could be greatly improved with enhanced political leadership and a greater demonstration of the strategic purpose of large scale infrastructure planning.

At the level of specific projects, research undertaken by UCL’s OMEGA centre is instructive.  It suggests that the “institutional, policy and legislative support” required to see the planning and delivery of major infrastructure projects through to completion requires “political champions capable of maintaining the project’s momentum and building consensus across a variety of interests as a basis for reconciling conflicting/competing stakeholder agendas”.

Making a single Minister responsible would surely be productive in advancing both of these ends.  Having an individual minister at the highest level of Government to champion a future infrastructure agenda, could help in building and promoting a coherent strategy that is easily accessible to the public.  It would also introduce a new element of accountability – ensuring that there is a single figurehead responsible for driving forward the most important National Infrastructure Projects.

Cian Bryan

Cian Bryan is a Director at Planning Futures

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