The infrastructure we use to travel, talk and power our homes and businesses is constantly being renewed and improved. When we get it right, it delivers outcomes that society hugely values such as easier and quicker commuting, allowing people more time to spend with their families, clean, plentiful water supplies and access to affordable energy. The best infrastructure is also future proof and helps to tackle climate change. But infrastructure can also be a source of huge frustration and contention as debates erupt over new projects and interest groups get pitted against each other.
Recently the Labour party commissioned Sir John Armitt to develop a draft bill on infrastructure planning that will put in place a more strategic approach to building the infrastructure our country needs. It aims to overcome the short termism of politics and make sure that investors and projects have the certainty they need. This would be a valuable step forward, but there is a missing piece.
The infrastructure we need isn’t an abstract concept to plan out on paper – it may well impact and disrupt people’s lives in the short term, even though it will deliver benefits in the long term. But no explanation of the multiplier effect will be enough to persuade a family that it’s worth losing a view they love, or putting up with years of disruption to reduce travel times for others on a service they rarely use. If we are to build the infrastructure we need in reality as well as on paper, it is essential that people are part of the debate and have their say. At the moment, people are asked for their views when a project is fully designed and largely ready to be built. The opportunity for wider questions and consideration of alternatives and trade offs is far in the past and didn’t involve the public. Interests often seem too vested and communities don’t feel they have a meaningful opportunity to have their say. As a result, public consultation on infrastructure frequently becomes confrontational, which has to change.
Myself and a group of like-minded colleagues have been meeting in recent months to discuss this issue as part of the green social democracy project being run by Green Alliance. In this forum we agreed that developing a public mandate for infrastructure will be essential to it getting built and playing its part in transitioning us to a low carbon economy and society. Sir John Armitt’s valuable work on infrastructure presents a timely opportunity to consider how we can also let democracy into the process of infrastructure planning.
Opening up decision making can be an intimidating prospect, but it will be richer as a result. And this bold step is essential if we are to deliver the infrastructure our country urgently requires if it is to meet citizens’ needs, remain competitive and help us tackle climate change. We therefore propose two ways in which public dialogue can be integrated into the infrastructure planning process proposed by Sir John Armitt. A stakeholder council that reflects diverse civil society views should provide input into the national assessment of what infrastructure is needed. Once that is agreed, sector plans will be developed that set out how, where and when infrastructure will actually be delivered. At this point, cities and counties are well placed to provide input, drawing the public into dialogue to understand and reflect their views on different approaches to meeting infrastructure need, build awareness of the benefits and impacts of different options and to provide insight on what people will accept.
My political tradition values the richness of local input. Our commitment to decentralisation is a good complement to the idea of building public support for infrastructure and ensuring that is informed by their views throughout, not just when it comes to a specific project being proposed for their doorstep. Give people more power and we’re more likely to build the country we need.
Huw Irranca-Davies is the MP for Ogmore and he is Shadow Food and Farming Minister