20 June 2017

New ministers responsible for making infrastructure decisions need to establish realistic and long-term plans that focus on engaging beyond Whitehall. Tess Kidney Bishop says getting this right can make a long-term difference, even if a minister’s tenure is shorter than expected.

There are at least six new ministers responsible for economic infrastructure:

  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, responsible for floods, water and waterways, sees a new Secretary of State in Michael Gove.
  • Liz Truss is the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the post responsible for public expenditure on infrastructure.
  • Lord Callanan and Jesse Norman have been appointed to the Department for Transport (likely to have responsibility for Crossrail, High Speed 2 (HS2) and aviation).
  • Claire Perry and Richard Harrington are at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (likely to have responsibility for industrial strategy, nuclear and shale gas).
  • Jake Berry is now at the Department for Communities and Local Government (likely to have responsibility for HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse).
  • Andrew Jones is at the Treasury (likely to have responsibility for energy policy).

Both developing and implementing infrastructure policy is a challenge. But, as former ministers can attest, there are ways to make it easier.

Our Ministers Reflect project contains a wealth of information from past infrastructure ministers. We boil it down to three key pieces of advice for these new ministers who want to have a long-term impact on infrastructure decision making in the UK.

1. Have a clear plan and set of priorities

Long-term planning is crucial to getting infrastructure right. But, as several ministers reflected, thinking about policy beyond five-year political terms is a tricky prospect when ministerial churn in Whitehall is so frequent. Lord O’Neill, Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (2015-16) and a key force behind the Northern Powerhouse, bemoaned the impact this has: “everything’s just stuck together with sellotape and one government comes in and changes things, so there’s no strategic thought.”

A clear plan and set of priorities can allow ministers to have a real impact within a relatively short time and avoid policies leaving a department when their time in office ends. Being realistic about what you can get done needn’t mean taking a short-term approach.

Previous IfG research has shown that there is a short but critical window at the start of a new government to establish priorities. If it is to have a chance of making policy stick, “government must define the problem it is tackling, articulate who or what would be the subject of an intervention and describe what success would look like.”

2. Invest in institutions that encourage stability

Just as ministerial churn can undermine effectiveness in infrastructure decision making, so too can too many changes to government institutions, i.e. churn in the machinery of government.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) represents an opportunity to develop long-term strategy for infrastructure. Its semi-independent status also makes it a good point around which to build cross-party support. As Ed Balls, Shadow Chancellor (2011-15) and previously Economic Secretary to the Treasury (2006-07), remarked: “…the only things which really matter, the only things that really last, that have long-term impact, are the things which become consensual…”

Committing to delivering the requirements set out in the NIC’s first National Infrastructure Assessment, due in 2018, will improve the legitimacy of infrastructure decisions and encourage long-term policy stability.

3. Involve experts and citizens

Reducing opportunities for input can be a tempting approach to simplifying the complex infrastructure decision-making process and reducing delays. But we know engagement with affected communities can save money and time in the long term, particularly given the controversies of infrastructure. 

Baroness Kramer, Minister of State for Transport (2013-15), highlighted the value of citizens’ input in her decisions on HS2: “Decisions really were based on analysis and evidence… But I also know how important it is to listen. But then you recognise the decision you make will upset people who are quite legitimately upset, if that makes any sense. No decision is 100% good or 100% bad. Everything is a mix and it’s on the balance of benefits that you are making the decision that you’re making.”

There also needs to be ongoing engagement with businesses, as Tessa Jowell, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (2001-07), learnt during the 2012 Olympics: “there’s a much greater degree of hybridity in the way policy is delivered now than there was even when I was in government – everything is public, private to some degree. …I think that kind of interchange, properly managed, is a way that you just extract more value.”

The Conservatives’ social care manifesto pledge was another timely reminder of the trouble “closed-door policy-making” can cause. Opening up the policy-making process is a positive step for accountability, effectiveness and innovation, and is key to successfully implementing policy and delivering large projects.

These three lessons – having a clear strategy, promoting stability and engaging with outsiders – can all help ministers deliver on their infrastructure goals and secure a legacy which survives long after they have moved on from government.