Bill Jamieson: Coherent infrastructure plan descends into Buzzword Bingo

Thank heaven for small mercies in official reports. After the blockbuster 137-page jargon-packed report of the Scottish Infrastructure Commission which landed with a thump on ministers’ desks in January comes the follow-up: the “Phase 2 Delivery Findings Report”. Not the ”what” and “why” concerns of the initial mind-bender report, but concentration on “how”.
Housey housey from the Commission won't make life much easier for ministersHousey housey from the Commission won't make life much easier for ministers
Housey housey from the Commission won't make life much easier for ministers

I shuddered when it landed in my inbox. But much to my relief it is a masterpiece of compression at just 12 pages.

So congratulations for brevity are surely in order for chairman Ian Russell and his colleagues – even if, at times “Phase 2” occasionally relapses into a masterclass of Buzzword Bingo. The Gobbledygook gene is hard to shake off.

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Part of the problem here is the expectation created by the grandiloquent title of “Scottish Infrastructure Commission”. Here, surely, was to be found a detailed action list of priority projects: shovel-ready “action this day” construction game-changers that would transform our economy and physical landscape.

It would bristle with artists’ impressions of stunning new bridges, gleaming motorways, pulsating new business centres – and at the centre of all this, a spanking new Scottish National Infrastructure Company head office, swishing escalators, a panoramic Benny Higgins rooftop suite and landscaped entrance humming with Tesla e-cars and charging bays.

Absolutely none of this. And it is vital to be clear what the Infrastructure Commission is not about, as much as what it is.

It is not in the business of particular and specific project setting – that, Russell insists, is firmly the responsibility of Scottish Government ministers. Nor is there a daunting list of project priorities. And, most striking of all, the Phase 2 Delivery Findings Report has set its face against the creation of any such National Infrastructure Commission Company.

“After careful consideration,” it declares, “the Commission has concluded that none of the outcomes of its recommendations would be enhanced by the creation of such a body.”

No gleaming new quango thrusting its tentacles into every other orifice of government? What a stunning break with Holyrood tradition.

But it comes with some ambiguity in the report. “The vision established during our Phase 1 work” runs an earlier paragraph in the report, “can be effectively implemented over the long term to meet the future infrastructure needs of Scotland and also help to inform considerations around the creation of Scottish National Infrastructure Company as set out in the remit of the Commission”.

It still recommends an independent specialist body with the remit “to provide strategic, long-term infrastructure advice to the Scottish Government. This independent organisation should sit outside the political decision-making system to enable it to operate in an arm’s-length and transparent way – one that builds confidence across the public and private sectors as well as society and the general public. This would allow the body to challenge government while also undertaking tactical public engagement to inform the long-term strategy.” However, no permanent ongoing quango looks to be the firm conclusion.

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And the Commission itself? It will now dissolve and cease to be. Its purpose has been more conceptual than physical – to set out a long-term, 30-year infrastructure strategy to guide the building of a net zero carbon economy, stress the importance of collaboration in project development and get the public sector and the construction industry to work together, citing New Zealand as the model.

It also recommends that the Scottish Government and the Construction Scotland Leadership Group should create a Construction Accord. Meanwhile, the well-worn construct of “needs assessment” – a problem-ridden construct beloved of central planners stretching back to the 1970s, makes a baleful return. Have we not moved on?

These niggles apart, it’s all goody-two-shoes: few could object to the main thrust of this – only putting these noble visions into practice has been the perpetual bane of governments of all shades and colours.

Many today might query the value of a 30-year plan or set of targets given the rapid speed and scale of change forced on economies across the world in the past six months by the Covid-19 pandemic.

What is the point of developing “a 30-year infrastructure needs assessment (sic) and strategy” when not just our priorities and the future of our high streets but the very basics of office work are being transformed before our eyes?

But Russell has a good answer. Infrastructure can last a long time: 80 per cent of it is likely to be with us in 30 years’ time. The Scottish Government is currently spending some £5 billion a year on infrastructure projects. So before rushing into monument projects with an immediate visual hit, we had better make sure we are spending that money wisely.

Urgency to embark on Covid recovery, he says, “should not deflect us from a long-term view of infrastructure and how the money we’re spending today lines up with our 30-year objective”.

As for transport infrastructure, the Commission recommends a presumption in favour of future proofing and maintaining the existing road network – rather than building new capacity – “and that the capacity is shifted towards active travel and public transport and away from single passenger car traffic”.

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But in gobbledygook, the Commission has earned its place in history by some mind-boggling examples of Buzzword Bingo. What, for example, does this admonition to government mean? “By the end of 2021,” it proclaims, the Scottish Government should “ introduce an outcome-led, integrated, cross-infrastructure prioritisation approach that incorporates and balances spatial and sector needs.” Triple score here, surely!

Or what does it mean to “optimise the impact of infrastructure in enabling sustainable places”? Or for that matter, “be at the vanguard of green data centres”?

However, onwards and upwards. Now that the Commission has done the sky-blue strategic thinking it’s up to ministers to provide the next five-year plan. And one is due in September.

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