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The loss of Adonis is a second blow to the county’s growth plans. Who will replace him?

January 3, 2018 12:33 PM
By Andy Boddington in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Roads and TransportFew voters will notice the resignation of Andrew Adonis as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). Not many will know what NIC did. More people will have heard of Lord Heseltine, though outside Manchester and Liverpool, few may understand how important he has been to regeneration of urban areas. He was sacked for disobeying Theresa May over Brexit. Adonis resigned over Brexit and his disillusionment wit May's government.

This country is rapidly running out of expert champions for regeneration, building infrastructure and growing the economy.

Surely the needs for regeneration and housing should rise above day-to-day political infighting?

When he was sacked after voting against the government on Brexit last March, Tory grandee Michael Heseltine was chair of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission. Afterwards, the commission drifted rudderless for six months. Just before Christmas, the commission announced its priorities under its new chair, Sir John Armitt, the man who built the Olympic Park. These priorities have no punch. They talk of centres of excellence, skills, transport infrastructure and housing. These are motherhood and apple pie issues. An undergraduate could have written them. The commission has not made a significant step forward since it issued a call for ideas under Heseltine in July 2016. It has become an administrative rather than visionary body.

Heseltine had vision. That's why he did so well in Liverpool and Manchester.

Lord Adonis is of the opposite political persuasion to Heseltine, though not over Brexit. He shares the same vision for providing the housing we need and the same enthusiasm for infrastructure. Adonis can be proud of the achievements of the Commission on the East West Arc between Oxford and Cambridge.

At the age of 84, Heseltine is a Conservative grandee. No one would blame him for taking a back seat in public life but that doesn't seem to be his style. It is perhaps time that someone else stood in his shoes but we have not found that champion. Adonis is thirty years younger but he now seems to be on the infrastructural sidelines. Who will replace him?

The government is briefing that Adonis quit before he was pushed. That may well be true. He had become a vocal critic of the government's performance in the north, the way that transport secretary Chris Grayling and his predecessors have handled the East Coast rail franchise and, of course, of the EU Withdrawal Bill and Brexit.

If it is true that Adonis was about to be sacked, it is likely that Adonis's successor is already known. There is no prospect of a return of Heseltine, with several MPs demanding that he lose the Tory whip after he claimed having Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street would be less damaging than Brexit. We also now know, if we did not before, that Theresa May's government is intolerant of dissenters, even in so-called independent bodies like the National Infrastructure Commission.

Sir John Armitt is the deputy chair of the NIC. He would be an obvious choice after the success of the Olympics. He is a champion of innovation. But he has yet to make headway on the Thames Estuary project.

Waiting in the wings perhaps is Sir Howard Davies. A man with an impeccable economic pedigree, he chaired the Airports Commission towards its destiny of recommending a third runway at Heathrow. His role on the commission attracted controversy as he also sat on the board of an insurance giant that stood to benefit from expansion of the airport.

Davies could bring analytical skills to the task of building infrastructure in the way that Adonis has. He does not have the political gravitas of Heseltine but he is sure footed and astute in operating in difficult political contexts.

If we are to build enough housing and connect enough places, we need strong leadership. That can't come from here today, gone tomorrow ministers. Or civil servants with little experience of the realities of planning and construction.

The public will barely notice who the next chair of NIC will be. But it will be one of the most important appointments if we are to build the infrastructure and housing we need. The successor to Adonis must work in the political sphere, as well understanding the contortions of the planning system and the increasingly overstretched construction sector.

Theresa May, currently on the brink of a cabinet reshuffle, has shown herself not to be wise in her choice of advisers, two of whom were sacked after the election, and cabinet ministers, three of whom have resigned after scandals.

The danger is that we will no longer have any champions that can grasp the broader picture of infrastructure development across the UK. If we are to have development, and we need it, it should be led with vision and implemented with innovation.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice