The NIC finds its voice
28 June 2017 | Author: David Leam, Infrastructure Director, London First

This was the week the NIC demonstrated it will be no docile pet of government, and unafraid to use its bark – and if necessary bite – to hold Ministers to account on infrastructure planning and delivery.

Coming after a Queen's Speech that set few pulses racing in the transport sector, the fact that five of the NIC's top twelve priorities for action were transport schemes was an unequivocal boost.

Top of the list was Heathrow's third runway, rightly described by NIC Chair Lord Adonis as the "acid test" of the government's commitment to infrastructure. Ministers have been commendably firm in their continued support for Heathrow, but now need to press on. The unexpected election has already added a few months to the programme.

There's also no doubting that life as a minority government makes the parliamentary vote more fraught than it should otherwise have been – though a majority of MPs across parties continue to back the scheme. Sustained support from business groups and from the UK's nations and regions will now be even more vital to the successful passage of next spring's vote.

More immediately, progress rests upon the appointment of a new select committee who must scrutinise the draft National Policy Statement. With staunch Heathrow advocate Louise Ellman stepping down as Transport Committee chair, this post is one to watch. Airports beyond Heathrow will welcome the NIC's challenge to government to get moving on its long-promised national aviation strategy – ideally before the end of July. Opportunities for growth need to be supported elsewhere too.

Next up was HS2, one of the few tangible infrastructure winners from the Queen's Speech. No Lord Adonis set-piece would be complete without due tribute to the project he instigated, and this did not disappoint. Overall, HS2 looks in good shape, with major works contracts imminent and a hybrid bill for phase 2a (Birmingham to Crewe) confirmed. HS2's future is, for now at least, in its own hands.

Far more attention is, however, needed on rail schemes in the cities HS2 serves, and here the NIC turned up the heat on government a notch or two. As the NIC has previously concluded, HS3 and Crossrail 2 are vital schemes for the connectivity of northern England and the SE respectively - and exactly the sort of project we should now be pressing ahead with to show that Britain means business post-Brexit.

Transforming rail connections between major northern cites, particularly trans-Pennine, has widespread support. Yet a credible and deliverable plan remains frustratingly elusive. With a visibly exasperated Lord Adonis and ambitious new metro Mayors like Andy Burnham champing at the bit, expect a winter of discontent if the NIC's end of year deadline is not now met.

Crossrail 2 is a more advanced scheme, with the latest business case sat on the Transport Secretary's desk awaiting approval to move to the next phase (preparation for a hybrid bill in 2020). The latest route is now an open secret - to readers of City AM anyway - and widely acknowledged as absolutely fit for purpose in addressing the overcrowding problems identified by TfL and Network Rail. Without Crossrail 2 major stations and lines will steadily grind to a halt, including Euston.

The core challenge here remains one of cost and funding. Coming in at a hefty £30bn, further hard work and clever thinking is required to develop a fair funding package. The Mayor of London has already committed to London bearing at least half of the cost – through fares, business rates and development along the route (as with Crossrail 1). Other funding sources now need to be explored, alongside financing options to lessen the burden on government up front during construction.

Both HS3 and Crossrail 2 now require an early expression of support from the Transport Secretary, together with a commitment to work with city leaders across parties and with business groups to help develop funding options.

Finally, the NIC highlights crossings of the River Thames. A government decision on the Lower Thames Crossing finally sneaked under the wire ahead of the recent election. The project now needs further detailed assessment so the long journey to planning consent can begin. Meanwhile the Silvertown Tunnel – to relieve endemic congestion at Blackwall – should secure permission in the autumn. Beyond these schemes further work needs to be done, and one would expect roads more generally to feature more centrally in future NIC updates.

For each of the twelve priorities the NIC highlights key decision points, with a commitment to "issue regular updates over the coming months, highlighting progress or lack of it against these decision points". This provides some welcome additional scrutiny to government performance on infrastructure policy, and the government will now need to deliver on its commitments if it is to avoid discovering whether the NIC's bite is indeed worse than its bark.


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