Alexander Phillips says that Wales needs a Infrastructure Delivery post
I occasionally think of myself as an infrastructure nerd. Perhaps I just spent too long playing with train sets and Transport Tycoon as a child, but I find the idea of building sustainable systems that connect people and deliver services very exciting – in a purely intellectual sense you’ll understand. In recent years various governments (be they in Wales or elsewhere) have struggled with the conundrum of how to deliver strategic infrastructure projects in a climate of tight budgets and rampant NIMBYism.
In the Welsh context I have now lost count of the amount of times key infrastructure projects have been delayed, or even abandoned, for a multitude of systematic reasons which have their foundations in political ideology, rather than sound sustainable decision making. This makes me furious because it’s the future generations (as always) that will pay the price – be that in higher energy bills; weaker public services or higher-carbon output.
The response to this has been varied, with the UK Government’s National Infrastructure Delivery Plan being published on 23rd March. Within Wales some have come at the system and crafted legislation such as the Planning Act to overcome problems. Others, such as Plaid Cymru, have taken a different approach and proposed a new ‘National Infrastructure Commission Wales’ which would go further than the one established by George Osborne and actually “plan, fund and deliver the aspirations set out in the National Infrastructure Investment Plan.” Indeed, the Wales Office even created an Infrastructure Working Group to look at new ways of achieving things at a cross government level.
While I think the principles of such a Commission are logical, I am uncomfortable with the lack of accountability a body of such power and independence would have to the Welsh people. I would prefer something along the lines of Osbourne’s model where the Commission explores options and advises those in government. Nonetheless, I commend Plaid Cymru for again being the ones to actually engage with the problem and to try to overcome the political short-termism infrastructure projects keep butting up against. I look forward to seeing the idea developed in their manifesto. Hopefully it will be fully integrated with our world leading Well-being of Future Generations Act, and make provisions for Sophie Howe – Future Generations Commissioner, to be included within the Commission to ensure long term strategic decisions are made with sustainability in mind.
The issue of infrastructure delivery links in with two of the biggest problems the next Welsh Government will need to overcome. First, the obvious need to enact policy in the real world. And second, the need to fill the gap left by the retirement of Edwina Hart. While I appreciate that the Minister divides opinion, I am happy to defend her as one of the most effective aspects of the current Welsh Government and someone who will be sorely missed by those who care about delivery and want to see practical & strategic solutions to our nation’s problems enacted.
This is why I want to throw my 2p into the hat of countless suggestions Wales’ post 5th May First Minister will hopefully consider when forming their new Cabinet. Simply that as the mammoth Economy, Science & Transport portfolio is carved up among less experienced hands, some consideration is given to creating a position for Infrastructure Delivery.
In order to deliver what Wales needs, the new government requires a strong strategic delivery focused individual who can see the big picture and will bang heads together and make agreed projects happen. We don’t have this at the moment because the National Infrastructure Investment Plan is too all-encompassing in its contents, seems to tackle all scales, and has projects split across numerous departments. As the National Assembly for Wales gains greater powers, and so too do areas within City Deals, it will be increasingly vital for this joined up approach to drive delivery. Wales can’t afford a situation where we continue the uneven development of key infrastructure across our regions. For the potential of City Deals to be maximised we need to integrate it with wider areas and deliver a pan-Wales approach. This can only be achieved at a Welsh Government level, and as such, deserves a place in Cabinet.
As ever such an idea is hardly original. A quick scan of Google will reveal that similar ideas have been tried in places as diverse as the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. In a country this small, a lot can be achieved through a strategic and sustainable approach. It’s time we stopped putting things off and built the Wales future generations deserve.