Sir John Armitt: “Infrastructure is not for engineers. It’s by engineers, for the public”

Posted On: 
18th October 2018

As chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt takes an altogether different approach to his predecessor. The decorated civil engineer believes the profession must do more to communicate what it’s for – but believes the sector can find the solutions to many of today’s challenges. He speaks to Sebastian Whale

Sir John Armitt is chair of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt is chair of the National Infrastructure Commission
Credit: 
Paul Heartfield

An elaborately designed brochure caught John Armitt’s eye. It depicted a contemplative man standing in a field during a thunderstorm, a large digger behind him. The year was 1962, and the then 16-year-old was starting to think about his future career. A lover of the humanities, Armitt had never been taken with maths and physics.

But there was something about the Institution of Civil Engineers’ brochure that captured his imagination. Inside it outlined exotic opportunities to travel and work overseas. It spoke of harnessing the power of nature for the benefit of mankind. “I thought oh, that sounds interesting,” Armitt tells me.

Buoyed, he went down to what was then known as the Portsmouth College of Technology and listed his qualifications. “Sign here, lad,” the official responded. Armitt graduated in 1966.

It is quite something to consider that a career that features helping to deliver the London Olympic Games and High Speed 1, through to being appointed chief executive of Network Rail, receiving a knighthood and even going on to become the president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, emanated from a colourful leaflet.

Armitt now chairs the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), an organisation he helped set up in 2015. We are sat in the NIC’s head offices in central London off Chancery Lane, with suitably stylish furnishings and glass panels littered with notes and diagrams undecipherable to a lowly political journalist.

The commission provides advice and analysis to the government on the long-term infrastructure challenges and priorities facing the UK. Armitt, who served initially as deputy chair, took on the full chairmanship in January after his processor, Andrew Adonis, resigned in protest at the Government’s policy on Brexit.

Armitt takes an altogether different approach to the Labour peer, describing himself as a technocrat who, while he holds opinions on politically contentious issues, recognises that “it’s not my job in this role to start spouting about that”. He is a voice of authority on all things engineering and infrastructure, and believes the profession has a role to play in communicating what it is for.

“Infrastructure is not for engineers. It’s by engineers, for the public,” he explains. The public pays for the projects, he adds, but generally speaking “they’re not treated as seriously as a stakeholder or the rest of the industry”. This failure to earn public buy-in on projects must be addressed, he argues, which in turn would make politicians’ lives easier.

“It shouldn’t be the government ministers, it should be the profession, it should be the industry. Engineers should accept this is very much part of their role, to get out there and not hide behind their computer,” he says.

Much of this is self-evident – the public is often highly sceptical of infrastructure projects and yet relish the rewards upon their completion. Armitt refers to a TV programme in which reporters went back to villagers affected by work to the M25 who concluded: “We couldn’t imagine life without it.”

With Heathrow expansion as a prime example, the UK is glacial at authorising largescale infrastructure projects. Armitt largely puts this down to issues surrounding compensation. “We handle compensation in the UK in a very slow way. We actually will only give you compensation post the event,” he says, highlighting differences with the French, who give cash up front.

“From my experience on High Speed 1, the thing that really upsets people is the blight. Being bought out is one thing,” he continues. “The real problem is the people who are on the margins who will be there to experience the new Heathrow runway or experience the new High Speed 2 after it’s finished. It’s how we compensate them that I think is important.”

As part of its remit, the NIC produces a National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) during each parliament. Among the recommendations in its latest report, which was produced in July, the commission called on the government to work with councils and private companies to deliver a “national network of charging points for electric vehicles” to address what Armitt calls range anxiety, which is “probably the biggest handicap to increasing the sale of electric cars”. It speaks to what infrastructure can achieve in addressing modern day phenomena such as tackling climate change: “All these things are there to be solved. That’s what makes it so attractive. My underlying philosophy is, if we can imagine it, we’ll do it. It’s only a matter of time.”

The NIC also called for metro mayors to be given more powers and control over infrastructure investment, including rolling five-year budgets from 2021. Like governments, “they’ll have to make tough choices” on allocation, he says. “At least it’s made locally and hopefully made again with that local debate about how best we can improve our infrastructure and our transport networks and so on in the city.”

Armitt also suggests there should be a change in approach when it comes to city centre regeneration. Citing the example of the redeveloped Birmingham New Street Station, he asks whether the money would have been better placed being put into a new station on the edge of the city.

He experienced this first hand with High Speed 1, when local people called for a train station in central Ashford through which the Eurostar would pass, as opposed to one on the outskirts. “Fine, that’s what they got. But it added several hundred million pounds to the cost of the project,” he says.

“Whereas had it been out there, it would have created a new focus, a new location, which could well have developed more business and not meant that the centre is always the only thing that matters to a town or a city.”

Brexit looming in the horizon has created additional uncertainty. Armitt says that it is private sector investors who are “more nervous” than in the public sector. “The thing about infrastructure is, Brexit or no Brexit, we’ve got to have water, we’ve got to have electricity. The demand isn’t going to go away,” he argues. The commission does not counsel ministers on no deal preparation, Armitt says, as that would go against its remit to consider long-term requirements.

Armitt has “sympathy” with constraints to public expenditure on infrastructure, which is why the NIA did not call for an increase in spending from 1.2% of GDP to say, 1.5%. “I’m not sure that’s particularly helpful. Particularly at a time when he’s got all the other pressures; the National Health Service and care. How on earth do you balance the budget going forward without increasing taxes, I don’t know, frankly,” he says.

Going forward, Armitt would like to see an open debate with the public around areas such as train fares. Currently, fares are paid entirely by customers, as opposed to through general taxation. If the public want cheaper fares, then there needs to be agreement that the taxpayer will subsidise it. “That needs to be an open debate and an honest debate so that people can say, ‘well, what would I rather have? The Dutch person or the British version of my rail fare’,” he says.

The Labour party has been clear of its intentions to nationalise rail, water and parts of the energy sector. Armitt, who is speaking more in a personal capacity, is sceptical about taking these industries back into public ownership.

The first challenge, he says, is finding the money to “pay a fair price”. Despite changing ownership, the “people running those businesses are essentially going to be the same”, he says. “Again, I think the issue here is we’re more than happy to trust Marks and Spencer and Safeway and Tesco with the provision of the thing most fundamental to us, which is food. Why can’t we create an environment in which we’re equally trusting of private sector companies to provide us with those key utilities?” he asks.

“The Rail Review is going to be an interesting one. I’ve seen it as Network Rail, I’ve seen it as a train operator. I understand it pretty well, warts and all. It’s not perfect. But just nationalising it I don’t think is necessarily the answer at all. We tend to look back with rose tinted glasses I think of how it used to be sometimes.”

Given his lack of a STEM background at school, Armitt concedes that it would be “more difficult” to enter engineering than when he was a teenager. I wonder whether he feels, as he looks back on his lengthy career, that the reality lived up to what was depicted on that colourful leaflet more than 55 years ago.

“I’ve had the overseas travel. When I come home from a site visit, I’m always told I look more cheerful than I do when I’ve come back from the office. So, there must have been something about getting outside. I’ve certainly thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says.

“But I’m conscious, and as I’ve said to colleagues, that as an industry, we have not changed as much as others have. And we’ve not necessarily been able to grasp new technology and use it in the way that the car industry or the aviation industry has. So, there is still loads of enormous challenges out there, which is the great thing about the NIC. This opportunity to learn something every day about different sectors. You are constantly learning, constantly having to change your views and your position as the evidence changes.

“The great thing is you are at the end of the day doing something, creating something, which makes all our lives easier and better to live. It’s good fun.”