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Agency status and own budget for National Infrastructure Commission, says UK government

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) will become an executive agency of the UK Treasury, with its own "budget, freedom and autonomy", the UK chancellor has announced.

The commission, which is currently operating on an interim basis, will be placed on a permanent footing from January 2017, according to the announcement. Former Olympic Delivery Authority chair Sir John Armitt, who produced an independent report on UK infrastructure planning in 2013, has been appointed as interim deputy chair of the NIC, joining former transport secretary Lord Adonis who is acting as interim chair.

The government intends to appoint a permanent chair and additional commissioners through an open competitive process. It has also published a 'call for ideas' for future specific studies by the NIC, as well as a charter setting out its commitment to the agency's independence.

Infrastructure law expert Robbie Owen of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that although it was "a surprise, and disappointing" that the new government had decided against giving the NIC a statutory basis, it was important now to "get on with the job" of addressing the UK's infrastructure needs.

"Setting up the NIC as an executive agency allows it to get up and running more quickly, without the delays associated with primary legislation, and this could perhaps be revisited in future years," he said.

"What's important now is the government's clear commitment to the NIC, as demonstrated by its 'call for ideas', and that it views the recommendations made by the NIC in a positive light. The National Needs Assessment, due to be published next week, will provide important input into the work of the NIC, particularly in relation to its first National Infrastructure Assessment," he said.

The NIC was set up in October 2015 in order to take a long-term look at the UK's infrastructure needs, and to provide independent advice to ministers and parliament. It has already produced recommendations for the government on London transport, connectivity in the north of England and 'smart' power; and is currently leading a UK-wide project on the country's longer term infrastructure needs.

The agency will be required to produce a National Infrastructure Assessment once in every parliament, setting out its assessment of the UK's long-term infrastructure needs along with recommendations to the government. It will also produce regular "specific studies on pressing infrastructure challenges" as requested by the government, and an annual "monitoring" report assessing the government's progress against its recommendations.

Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, said that the government was "putting the NIC at the very heart of our plans to ensure Britain's infrastructure is fit for the future".

"It will independently define our long-term infrastructure needs and help prioritise, plan and ensure value for money as this investment creates a modern Britain – fit to take on the world," he said.

The government has committed to invest £100 billion in infrastructure over the course of this parliament, with a particular focus on transport improvements.

The NIC has been set up to improve UK competitiveness and quality of life, and to support sustainable economic growth "across all regions of the UK", according to the charter. It will do this by assessing national infrastructure needs, carrying out in-depth studies into priority infrastructure challenges and monitoring the government's progress in delivering the infrastructure projects and programmes that it recommends.

The charter commits the government to formally respond to the recommendations made in any reports by the NIC, and to do so within six months "in the vast majority of cases". The NIC's reports, and the government's responses, will also be formally presented to parliament. The government has committed to share "relevant information" with the NIC, regardless of whether or not this is in the public domain; and to provide reasons and alternative proposals "where appropriate" should it disagree with the NIC's recommendations.

The government intends to set out the NIC's role in a "public remit letter", which will include "a binding fiscal remit to ensure that the NIC's recommendations would be affordable", it said.

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