An independent body to oversee UK transport strategy?

Last week the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) called for an independent infrastructure commission to develop and implement a long-term transport strategy.  For ICE, the urgent need to find solutions resistant to short-term thinking and able to survive political cycles can only be met if matters are handled by a body at arm’s length from the political hustle and bustle.

It’s not hard to sympathise with industry leaders’ frustration with the standard, inert response to controversial questions such as whether, when and where to build new airport runways, a state of affairs which leads to years of delay and uncertainty.

But it’s not so clear how a commission’s findings could be binding.  Consider, if you will, Royal Commissions (not quite the same thing, but close enough for our purposes): there is a long and ignoble tradition of these advisory committees being set up by the government of the day, only for their reports to gather dust on Whitehall shelves if they are at odds with ministers’ thinking.  A waste of time and money, in other words.  It’s just as well, in these fiscally stretched times, that enthusiasm for Royal Commissions has waned of late.

In any case, do we really want an ‘independent’ commission?  Decisions on big infrastructure projects have to be political, because they are all about delivering a public good (or avoiding an irreversible mistake) and making choices which can only be made by those with a democratic mandate to govern.  A report’s authors can advise, but never ultimately decide.

A committee of experts will tend to home in on hard facts, of the type that can be justified under theoretical economic terms, and fail to take non-measurables into account: is it worth ruining a green and pleasant valley just to make the train ride from Birmingham to London a bit quicker?  Democracy has its faults, but at least politicians know that they will have to look into the faces of good citizens whose whose backyards or wellbeing are affected by big infrastructure projects.

railway lines