The resignation of Lord Adonis follows the firing of Lord Heseltine earlier this year, and both disagreements are over Brexit.
The strong and high profile views of both peers has set the tone for the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). Since its creation, the NIC has set out a distinct agenda, separate from that of its parent department - the Treasury - and well beyond the remit of a normal executive agency.
Such independence is critical for the NIC’s ability to do its job properly and maintain credibility with the opposition and the public. It is concerning that, according to Lord Adonis’s resignation letter, he was told not to publicly raise concerns about the East Coast Rail Franchise.
The NIC would be protected from such interference, and be less reliant on the independent attitude of its personnel, if its institutional form matched its purpose.
The Office for Budget Responsibility and the Committee on Climate Change are both Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) which provide government with independent advice, and it’s high time that the NIC was made an NDPB and put on a statutory footing.
In summer 2018 the NIC will publish the first National Infrastructure Assessment, setting out its recommendations on how to meet the country’s infrastructure needs for the next 30 years.
This is the NIC’s most important work and getting it right is critical if the UK is to overcome the short-termism and instability that have hobbled infrastructure policy making for so long.
Lord Adonis has been the public face of the NIC and one of the principal architects of its thinking to date. Despite the high calibre of the NIC team, it’s inevitable that his resignation will be disruptive. The Government must do what it can to minimise this disruption by reiterating its support for the NIC and quickly appointing a new chair.
The loss of the NIC chair will affect its work, but it also presents the Government with an opportunity. The nine remaining commissioners have a huge amount of expertise, but they lack diversity.
Most commissioners have experience in policy making or economics and are professionally based in or near London. Appointing a commissioner with a different background would help to ensure that the NIC is seen to speak for the whole country.