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Discussion Dinner with Sir John Armitt at the Oxford and Cambridge Club

Visiting Masters, members of the Company and guests joined together for a super dinner with Sir John Armitt CBE FREng FICE.  Sir John is well known as the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission.  He also has considerable experience of managing large businesses and infrastructure projects as Chairman of John Laing plc’s International and Engineering Divisions, Chief Executive of Union Railways, Chief Executive of Network Rail, Chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, Chair of National Express Group and President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

He shared with us his observations and concerns with our planning system and ability to deliver major projects including

  • Our last reservoir was designed in the late 1980’s
  • It used to take 2.5 years to secure planning permission, it now takes 4.5 years
  • We had a national policy statement in 2010 on energy and little since
  • Each major project has a unique environmental impact statement, we then start again for the next one
  • 325,000 properties are at the highest risk of surface water flooding – there is a more than 60% chance they will flood in the next 30 years
  • Without action, up to 295,000 more properties could be put at risk
  • We need national action to tackle the issues, planting millions more trees, requiring planning and cooperation, which we are not good at
  • There is no integration in government between road and rail planning within a single department – what hope between departments? Even worse, energy is now separated from business

He said that he heard all the right words but did not see the actions.  The biggest problem was the failure of the planning system in the UK.  We had to be clear between national and local decision-making.  How do we deliver schemes in the national interest?

He observed that there could be no infrastructure without politics.  Politicians are accountable to the public but had to be prepared to be open to them.

Infrastructure depends on decisions on Why, What and How.  We love resolving How but consistently fail to tackle the Why?  We have difficulty learning from the mistakes of others.

His number one ask?  Consistency in government.  In 44 years we have had 23 Secretaries of State for Education.  What have we learnt?

Our grateful thanks to Deputy Master Colin Drummond for organising such a successful event and to Sir John for sharing his knowledge and experience in such an engaging and informative way.

(I learnt much from Sir John, such as, after all the hassle, did you know that the Elizabeth line in London now accounts for 16% of all rail journeys in the UK?)

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