Debate on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee Report on the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales
Diolch. Thank you, Presiding Officer. I move the motion in my name. The committee’s inquiry into a national infrastructure commission was a significant piece of work for the committee. In Wales, at this time, I think we do seem to have a number of really high-profile, blockbusting projects in the pipeline. We have the M4 relief road that’s, of course, going through its public inquiry at the moment—and I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his drop-in session today that he put on for Members—proposals for a new nuclear power station at Wylfa, electrification, of course, of the main line through Cardiff and to Swansea and the south Wales metro, and, of course, the potential, as well, for a Swansea tidal lagoon, which, I should add, has cross-party support in this Chamber. And, of course, I don’t want to leave out mid Wales: we have the likes of the Newtown bypass, which will of course be hugely beneficial to the mid Wales economy. So, I think it’s fitting that the Cabinet Secretary is proposing a national infrastructure commission for Wales by the end of this year.
Now, the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee has taken a great interest in the plans, and has indeed made it one of its first inquiries. So, the committee looked in detail at the proposals the Government was putting forward earlier this year. We invited evidence from stakeholders in Wales, those involved in the new UK National Infrastructure Commission, and looked at how similar organisations work in Australia. We didn’t do a site visit, I should add; it was all without a site visit, unfortunately. Our conclusions were largely very positive. The Cabinet Secretary’s vision of an expert body that can depoliticise some of the most contentious and far-reaching decisions in Wales, I thought, was a compelling one, and that was the view of the committee.
But there were three areas where the committee recommended change. While we agree that the establishment of the body shouldn’t be delayed by legislation, we believe that there was a real benefit of putting it on a statutory basis to give it more credibility and clout, and, to that end, we recommended that it should be set up with the presumption that legislation will follow. We thought that the remit of the commission should be slightly wider to include the supply of land for strategically significant housing developments, and we also wanted to make the body more independent, by making it accountable to the future generations commissioner, and by ensuring that it was based outside Cardiff and not sharing a building with Government, and by giving an Assembly committee the chance to scrutinise the chair prior to his or her appointment. So, in all, we made 10 recommendations, and I’m pleased that the Government has engaged seriously with the work that we undertook and has given consideration to the ideas that we put forward, and the Welsh Government has accepted six of the committee’s recommendations. Another three have been accepted in principle, and one was rejected.
So, I’m pleased that the committee has been able to influence the model for the national infrastructure commission in the following ways. The preferred candidate for chair of the commission will be scrutinised by an Assembly committee in a pre-appointment hearing, as the Finance Committee did recently for the preferred chair of the Welsh Revenue Authority. The commission will produce a ‘state of the nation’ report on future Welsh infrastructure needs every three years, to detach its work from the political cycle, and will produce an annual report focusing on governance and past and upcoming work, and the Government has agreed to respond to all recommendations within six months. The commission’s annual remit letter will provide information on how much the Welsh Government expects to be able to spend on infrastructure funding over the longest possible timescale to give important context to its recommendations. The remit letter will also encourage the commission to build a strong relationship with the UK National Infrastructure Commission and the Scottish Futures Trust to maximise effectiveness. Appointments, also, to the commission will need to take into account the diversity of communities across Wales, and engagement at regional levels will be set in its terms of reference. Finally, the Welsh Government will explore mechanisms such as the development bank to focus on how more private funding can be used to support infrastructure development.
The only recommendation that the Government has rejected is our view that the commission would be in a stronger position if it was established under the assumption that it would be put on a statutory basis in due course. Now, our recommendation was influenced by the evidence from federal and state level infrastructure advisory bodies in Australia, which told the committee that their status as an authoritative voice on infrastructure has been enhanced by their independent status, and that the benefits of such an approach would apply more widely than Australia. The chief executive of the UK National Infrastructure Commission told the committee that, although being a non-statutory body had allowed it to be established more quickly, there was also a downside, since stakeholders perceived it to be less permanent. The committee agreed with the Government that we shouldn’t wait for legislation in order to establish the commission with pace, but we felt that there would be a real benefit in giving a clear commitment from the outset that legislation would be likely to follow. Now, as it stands, the risk remains that a future Cabinet Secretary—one perhaps less committed than the present Cabinet Secretary’s vision of a national infrastructure commission—could abolish the organisation at the stroke of a pen, or compromise its independence. So, a statutory body would provide protection to the new body and send a clear message to stakeholders that it was here to stay. So, I am, of course, disappointed that the Government has rejected this particular recommendation.
However, I do note that the Cabinet Secretary hasn’t completely slammed the door on this, and his plan to review the body before the end of the Assembly leaves a window, I hope, where these issues will be considered again. So, I and my committee colleagues will look forward to reviewing progress in 2021—it sounds a long way off—and seeing whether the vision that we all share today has been delivered. So, I know there are a number of committee members that are keen to speak and be called in this debate today, and I look forward to hearing the Members’ views and the response from the Cabinet Secretary.