Who’s going to fill the gap left by Edwina Hart?

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.

Alexander Phillips is a Public Affairs & Relations Consultant for Grayling Cymru

4 thoughts on “Who’s going to fill the gap left by Edwina Hart?

  1. The Institution of Civil Engineers Wales Cymru also calls for the creation of a body to support the WIIP; it its recently published Manifesto for Infrastructure in Wales 2016: Prosperity, Growth and Jobs
    ICE called for The Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan (WIIP) must be progressed to develop a pipeline of infrastructure projects with timelines developed and supported by the proposed Wales Infrastructure body.

  2. It’s interesting that Edwina Hart is the one politician that people are talking about in this regard. I don’t know who Alexander Phillips is (a short description would have been nice) but his argument and that of the ICE is well made. It’s important that a culture of infrastructure development develops both within and outwith the Assembly so that we can raise our expectations of what our country needs and it does not have to be confined to the South-East, the possibility of a Camarthen to Aberystwyth railway line and an integrated transport network for North Wales recently announced by the First Minister are just two examples. I would add to that ensuring that Mid-Wales can benefit from the economic development of the Capital Region by having good quality transport links to that area.

  3. Well worth reading Jeremy Browne’s book ‘Race Plan’, which includes quite a lot on why the UK (and I accept the book is Westminster/UK Government focused) is so bad at delivering major infrastructure projects. Rampant NIMBYism is certainly a big issue (especially when it comes to new homes). I certainly think that even if it isn’t a standalone Ministerial portfolio, there needs to be greater focus on delivery of major infrastructure projects. Good piece.

  4. I agree with one thing, that the political short-termism of infrastructure projects needs to be overcome. However, I think Edwina Hart is as guilty as the rest of them. While the second M4 around Newport would presumablly take quite some time to build, pursuing it as Ms Hart has been is political short-termism in my opinion.

    The ‘Well-being of Future Generations Act’ may be world leading, but if it did what it said on the tin it would have killed off the M4 project once and for all. The last thing Future Generations need is another motorway (actually no, the last thing they need is probably another airport runway, but I hope you see my point). Making more room for more cars is going to lead to increased car use, and I don’t think anyone really wants that.

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