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Lord Adonis: the man overseeing Britain’s infrastructure

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What will the UK look like in 2050? How will people travel around the country? What fuel will we use to heat our homes? How quickly will we be able to get online? The answers to those questions will depend heavily on the big infrastructure decisions that are made over the next few years – whether on high-speed rail, anaerobic digestion plants or fibre optic cables.

And those decisions will, in turn, depend heavily on the advice of the new National Infrastructure Commission, which has been chaired by Lord Andrew Adonis ever since it was established in 2015. That makes Adonis one of the most influential people in the country when it comes to infrastructure. So, who is this man that the Government has entrusted with such power?

At the heart of Blair’s Government

Like so many of today’s Westminster politicians, Adonis started out as a journalist: first at the Financial Times, where he wrote about industry and education, and then at the Observer, where he wrote political columns. He was a member of the Liberal Democrats before joining the Labour Party in 1995. 

When Labour took power, Adonis was soon enlisted to join Tony Blair’s Policy Unit at Number 10 – and then became head of the unit in 2001. His chief focus in that role was education, and he was the architect of New Labour’s programme of turning underperforming Local Authority schools into independent academies. In 2005, Blair put his adviser into the House of Lords as Baron Adonis of Camden Town, so that he could take up a ministerial post at the Department for Education and drive through his reforms. 

An influential Transport Secretary

Despite his close ties to Blair, Adonis kept his government post when Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister in 2007. Brown moved him to the Department for Transport in 2008, before promoting Adonis to the position of Secretary of State for Transport in 2009.

Although he only held the post for a year, Adonis did set in motion two major rail projects before Labour lost power at the 2010 General Election. The first was the electrification of large stretches of the rail network, especially the Great Western Main Line. The second was the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line from London to Birmingham and the North. Both of these projects were continued by the new Coalition Government, and are still being pursued by the current Conservative one. 

Architect of his own job

In 2013, Adonis was a member of an independent panel reviewing long-term infrastructure planning for the Labour Party. Named the ‘Armitt Review’ after its chair, Sir John Armitt, the panel’s main recommendation was a new National Infrastructure Commission to ‘undertake an evidence-based assessment of the UK’s infrastructure needs over a 25-30 year horizon’. That became Labour Party policy and was included in Ed Miliband’s manifesto for the 2015 General Election.

Even though Labour lost that election, George Osborne adopted the policy for himself and established the National Infrastructure Commission in October 2015. He tapped Adonis to chair the new body, with Armitt as his deputy.

Adonis’s three priorities

 Adonis has spent much of his first two years in the post urging the Government to get on with the big transport infrastructure projects it has been talking about for a while: a third runway at Heathrow, HS2, HS3 and Crossrail 2. In a speech in June this year, he argued that ‘it is essential that Government and Parliament takes a decisive lead on infrastructure to show that Britain is open for business and can reclaim the spirit of the Victorians’.

And last month, the Commission published an interim National Infrastructure Assessment, ahead of its first National Infrastructure Strategy. The document sets out what the Commission believes Britain’s long-term infrastructure priorities should be, neatly summed up by Adonis as the ‘three Cs’: congestion, capacity and carbon. More specific recommendations for how to address these challenges will be published in the National Infrastructure Strategy next year.

Of course, recommending big, bold projects is one thing – getting the Government to actually invest in them is another.

Throughout his career, Adonis has demonstrated a particular knack for championing policies that get taken up by politicians of different parties. The academies programme, HS2, and even establishing the National Infrastructure Commission itself all began as Labour policies but were continued or appropriated by Conservative ministers.

Given that big infrastructure projects require long-term support from successive governments, that knack could come in very handy.

Image: Michael Walter/Troika

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