Russell George AM sets out his priorities for delivering infrastructure projects in Wales
The article below is a keynote speech delivered by Russell George AM, Chair of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, at the Building Wales’ Future conference, hosted by IWA and Capital Law, on 28th September 2017.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I have good news and bad news. The good news is I’m only going to talk for 10 minutes. The bad news, is you’ll have to come up with some questions for me, after that. And I should warn you in advance – I have some questions for you too.
This is an exciting time for infrastructure projects. That’s what I said in March, in a speech at the National Assembly.
I then listed four big projects – three of which are no closer to being built today than they were then.
- The M4 relief road – still going through public inquiry;
- Proposals for a new nuclear power station at Wylfa – still proposals;
- Swansea Tidal Lagoon (and other lagoons around Wales) – still awaiting UK Government approval.
The only one of the four where there has been a concrete development is the railways, where electrification of the main line to Cardiff is nearing completion – but we now know that electrification to Swansea won’t be happening. The South Wales Metro and new Wales and Borders rail franchise went out to tendered earlier this week.
Wales has some great plans. But we need to see a bit more action.
The Welsh Government’s new Prosperity for All document was published last week, and says the following in respect of infrastructure:
“The exciting major projects planned across Wales over the coming years must bring with them significant benefits for their regions, and leave a lasting legacy for the people, infrastructure and economy of these areas.”
Like much of the Prosperity for All document, that statement is one that only a monster would disagree with.
Who would want these projects to NOT have significant benefits for their regions, or NOT to leave a lasting legacy?!
At the start of this year, the Assembly’s Committee for the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills, which I chair, took a long hard look at the Welsh Government’s plans to establish a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales.
We invited evidence from stakeholders in Wales, those involved in the new UK National Infrastructure Commission, and looked at how similar organisations work in Australia.
Our conclusions were largely positive – the Cabinet Secretary’s vision of an expert body that can de-politicise some of the most contentious and far-reaching decisions in Wales is a compelling one.
But there were three areas where the Committee recommended change:
- While we agreed that the establishment of the body shouldn’t be delayed by legislation, we believed there were real benefits to putting it on a statutory basis to give it more credibility and clout. To that end, we recommended that it should be set up with a presumption that legislation will follow. Unfortunately, Ken Skates wasn’t for persuading on this one. But I hope that this is an idea whose time will come, eventually.
- We thought the remit of the Commission should be slightly wider, to include the supply of land for strategically significant housing developments.
- And we also wanted to make the body more independent by making it accountable to the Future Generations Commissioner; by ensuring it is based outside Cardiff and not sharing a building with the Government; and by giving an Assembly Committee the chance to scrutinise the chair prior to his or her appointment.
In all we made 10 recommendations, and I’m pleased that the Government has engaged seriously with the work we undertook and given consideration to the ideas we put forward.
The Welsh Government accepted six of the Committee’s recommendations. Another three have been accepted in principle and the one to put it on a statutory footing was rejected.
The Cabinet Secretary has confirmed he intends to review the body towards the end of this Assembly, and I hope that will provide an opportunity to look again at the rejected recommendation and see whether the risks we identified of not putting it on a statutory footing have been borne out.
The next step for the NICfW will be the appointment of the Commission and the Chair, and I know the Government is currently working up its recruitment process.
The Cabinet Secretary has agreed – in response to the committee’s recommendation – that his preferred candidate for Chair of the Commission will be scrutinised by an Assembly Committee in a pre-appointment hearing.
While pre-appointment hearings are relatively new for us here in Wales, they are a thing that has happened frequently in the Westminster and the London Assembly. The Finance Committee’s hearing for the preferred Chair of the Welsh Revenue Authority was the first such hearing by an Assembly Committee.
In Westminster, over 90 pre-appointment hearings have been held over the last 10 years. Research by the Constitution Unit at LSE found: three cases the candidate withdrew following a critical hearing, and two instances where disclosures at the hearing led to a subsequent resignation.
The Constitution Unit’s recent report concluded that while Committees can’t formally veto appointments, they are “an important check on the integrity and effectiveness of senior public appointments, and a curb against Ministers abusing their powers of patronage.”
Their report argues that the mere process of having to go through a pre-appointment hearing deters Ministers from putting forward nominees who might not survive public scrutiny.
The new chair will need to be someone who can handle that level scrutiny. In addition to all their other skills. As an expert in some aspect of infrastructure, they will have to build the role of the Commission, build relationships with the UK Commission and equivalent body in Scotland; engage with you – as stakeholders; and be able to build a consensus around the Commission’s decisions.
The leadership provided by the first post holder will go a long way to defining the expectations the people of Wales have for the Commission. It is a crucial appointment, and I’m hopeful that the Committee’s input will contribute to an appointment that has widespread support.
I understand the Government is looking to recruit up to 11 Commissioners from a range of backgrounds. The Committee, in its discussions, considered whether or not some of the Commissioners should represent the regions of Wales – but ultimately we decided that wasn’t necessary, provided there was an awareness across the Commissioners of all parts of Wales. What is important is that different specialisms are represented, and that the Commission represents the diversity of Wales.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the Committee also published its report on Digital Infrastructure this month. There remains some work to be done to ensure everyone in Wales has access to fast broadband and a reliable mobile phone connection. We expect the Welsh Government’s response in November. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about this aspect of infrastructure too during the day.
So I’d like to close with a call for action.
Wales has some blockbuster plans on the blocks. The idea of creating a National Infrastructure Commission has support across parties.
What we need now is more energetic government. Putting strategies and plans in to action. Building the Wales of tomorrow.
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