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UK business leaders back creation of Armitt’s independent infrastructure commission

UK businesses “overwhelmingly support” the creation of an independent body to oversee the country’s infrastructure investment priorities, according to Confederation of British Industry (CBI) research.

Of the 443 senior figures in UK business canvassed by the CBI, 97% said that political uncertainty was discouraging investment while 93% said that political rhetoric was a problem. The survey showed strong support for “bold pledges” on infrastructure from the major political parties in the lead-up to the 2015 general election (60-page / 6.2MB PDF), and 89% backing for Sir John Armitt’s recommendations to remove infrastructure decision-making from the political process.

“Progress on infrastructure has been a case of two steps forward and three steps back for far too long,” said Katja Hall, the CBI’s deputy director general. “While the policy environment has improved, businesses still don’t see upgrades to mission-critical parts of our infrastructure on the ground in practice – and don’t expect to any time soon.”

“The next government must build on the successful policies of this parliament, but we also need to see bold thinking and a renewal of the politics of infrastructure, finding a new way to agree upon and then consistently deliver the improvements we’ll need over the next 50 years – not just the next five. … That 99% of firms think [an independent infrastructure commission] would have helped the government make a more compelling case for HS2 demonstrates the powerful role a more independent voice could play,” she said.

In a review commissioned by the Labour Party, the final report of which was published alongside draft legislation in July, former Olympic Delivery Authority chair Sir John Armitt recommended the creation of a new National Infrastructure Commission with statutory independence. This body, which would be set up by an act of parliament, would set clear long-term priorities for UK infrastructure investment and would produce a National Infrastructure Assessment to be presented to parliament for its approval once every 10 years.

Infrastructure UK, the Treasury unit that deals with long-term infrastructure priorities and their funding, currently produces an annual National Infrastructure Plan (NIP). Of the respondents to the CBI’s survey, 88% were supportive of the NIP while 87% welcomed the government’s UK Guarantee Scheme, which provides support for financially credible major infrastructure projects that would otherwise struggle to obtain funding. However, respondents’ confidence that those policies had translated into action was low, particularly in relation to transport projects.

Of particular concern to the CBI were the views of survey respondents on UK infrastructure in comparison to international competitors such as Australasia, North America and the EU. The CBI said that 59% of respondents to a survey in 2011 had viewed infrastructure in other EU countries as better than in the UK; however, in its 2014 survey, this gap had grown to 61%.

Setting out its future policy priorities to address these difficulties, the CBI said that an independent body should be established to determine the UK’s future infrastructure needs and how they should be met. It also proposed the introduction of new capital allowances for structures and buildings, and long-term commitments from government to current energy, transport and digital strategies. Survey respondents said that they wanted to see backing for rail franchising, airport reform and greater private investment in the road network in party manifestos.

EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, also renewed its calls to the UK government to commit to a permanent “UK Infrastructure Authority” in a similar report this week. Manufacturers wanted the current parliament to “complete the job on vital roads, energy and broadband projects” heading into the general election, as this was “far more important than redirecting planning resources to new aspirational projects”, EEF said.

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