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Opinion – James Palmer: ‘Is the Eastern region invisible to the National Infrastructure Commission?’

Opinion | James Palmer, chair of the Eastern Powerhouse, takes aim at the National Infrastructure Commission

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is a government-funded body, chaired by Sir John Armitt. The job of the NIC is essentially to set the government’s infrastructure policy for the next 30 years.

The previous chair, Lord Andrew Adonis, was a champion for HS2. The current chair seems to be similarly obsessed with investment into major cities.

Eastern Powerhouse Networking Event at The Gonville Hotel, James Palmer . Picture: Keith Heppell
Eastern Powerhouse Networking Event at The Gonville Hotel, James Palmer . Picture: Keith Heppell

Not great news if you are trundling along the A47, A12 or A120. In fact, so little does the east figure in the latest assessment by the NIC, you could be forgiven for thinking the East is invisible.

Delve deep into the report and you will find just two mentions of the third strongest economy in the UK – the Future Fens Initiative and East West Rail.

One is an environmental project and the other is a railway that stops at Cambridge. Both have significant importance and are welcome, but they are hardly going to lift the transport and internet connectivity in the East from the 20th to the 21st century.

Ultimately, the NIC has made its decision to promote cities ahead of regions and I believe to ignore the East is a dereliction of duty.

However, the NIC is right to recognise the importance of cities to the UK economy and it is right to suggest investment in mass rapid transport schemes in large cities that help deliver sustainable growth.

Transport systems pretty much anywhere other than London are severely lacking and the advent of modern, autonomous mass transport systems which operate at a fraction of the cost of traditional tram/bus/train solutions will make funding new transport initiatives more affordable. But, by putting all their effort into large cities, the NIC has failed the rest of the country, particularly the burgeoning economy here in the East of England.

There has to be more to a national transport assessment than saying government should “invest more in the regions”.

One could argue that just making the same mistakes over and over again is foolhardy but this report does exactly that. Failing to recognise the East of England as a primary driver of the economy is something that sadly the East has grown used to and I can almost hear the collective sigh of councils and civic leaders given the lack of direction for our region shown in this report.

Part of the reason the Eastern Powerhouse exists is to examine the type of report the NIC has delivered. As an independent, member-funded organisation, we are able to question the validity of a national report with so little interest in the nation as a whole.

Simply suggesting the regions have more funding is hardly going to get the pulse racing. There are a couple of lines on fiscal devolution and I certainly welcome that suggestion, but instead of a headline, promoting fiscal devolution as a fundamental policy, the NIC hides it deep in the report, almost apologetically.

In short, the NIC assessment is exactly what I would expect the NIC to deliver and that is probably the most disappointing thing about it.

I urge government to question every part of the report and find out why it is so lacklustre. It is time we had a National Infrastructure Commission that looks at both major cities and considers the regions of the United Kingdom.

Internationally, our significant competitors plan their infrastructure regionally to boost the

national economy. In the UK, we are still stuck in a post-war lethargy where we still don’t understand that regional growth relies on high quality infrastructure.

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