National Infrastructure Decisions Must be Depoliticised

Feb 23, 2016

Ireland needs an institutionalised commitment to long-term strategic infrastructure policy making. Recently, Engineers Ireland called for the establishment of a super junior ministry to oversee the State’s infrastructural needs. While some of the measures called for by the group, such as an increase in infrastructure expenditure, would be an improvement on the current situation, it would be preferable to remove infrastructure planning from the political sphere as much as possible; creating a new Junior Minister for Infrastructure, in a unit within the Department of the Taoiseach, will not achieve this.

Political interference in infrastructure planning prevents us from establishing what projects are of most importance for the country as a whole. In 2015 Ireland had the second lowest level of gross public investment as a percentage of GDP (2% of GDP, and well below the EU average of 2.9%). Such low spending and investment in infrastructure since the beginning of the economic downturn has meant we are now faced with a serious infrastructural deficit. Projects desperately need to be undertaken in water, broadband, transport and energy infrastructure, or Ireland risks stifling business growth and attracting foreign investment. What we really need is a more ambitious and development-orientated approach to infrastructure policy, and one which firmly removes these long-term projects, of huge economic importance, from the 5 year political terms of politicians.

An ideal way to ensure this would be to set up a National Infrastructure Commission, similar to that recently established in the UK. Irish infrastructure policy must be fundamentally reformed and in our view, the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission is a model which would work well for Ireland. The NIC is an independent body, tasked with improving long-term infrastructure policy making. The NIC assesses the UK’s infrastructure needs every 5 years, looking 30 years ahead across all key sectors. The Government is then obliged to respond to the Commission’s recommendations, either by accepting them or providing viable alternatives.  It is this requirement that the Government either accept the NIC’s five-yearly recommendations on long term infrastructural needs or propose viable alternatives that gives the NIC’s work meaningful impact and holds Government accountable for projects of key national importance.

Over the next few years large projects will be undertaken in water infrastructure, electricity transmission grid, renewable energy, and social housing, and each of these projects will be of significant importance to Ireland’s society and economy in the near and long-term future.  A National Infrastructure Commission, providing impartial endorsement of these strategically important projects, would help to ensure their effective planning, as well as secure public acceptance, and expedite their development.

A well-functioning infrastructure system is critical for any modern economy’s ability to generate growth. Indeed, the OECD recently called on developed countries to increase spending on infrastructure development, acknowledging the vital role it plays in economic expansion. If we wish to remain competitive in a global market, we must increase expenditure and invest smartly.

Infrastructure projects must be based on robust analysis of future business and population needs and avoid the short-termism and policy instability which politically motivated projects often produce.  The establishment of the NIC in the UK has placed emphasis on projects which are of national priority, providing independent expert advice to guide on strategic infrastructure. In order for Ireland to successfully identify and plan for infrastructure projects, the next Government should establish a similar independent National Infrastructure Commission, which will have the ability to expertly identify and prioritise projects in the national interest, in a de-politicised manner and with a long-term view. 

To read A Vision for 2021 – a Manifesto for the Future from the Irish Chamber Network sehere

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