A group of influential MPs might have provided David Cameron with a way to deal with three big problems all at once. The third runway at Heathrow, Jeremy Hunt and how to get pension funds to pay for infrastructure have all vexed the Prime Minister in recent months. By creating a Ministry of Infrastructure, Cameron could deal with all three in one fell swoop.
What's being called for?
The Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs is calling for a Ministry of Infrastructure, which could combine various functions of existing departments including transport, energy and communications networks, waste and water. Led by Liz Truss, and featuring a number of the 2010 intake, this Group is seen as moderate, thoughtful and influential.
The Group's report, Policy Bites: Seven Shots in the Arm of Britain, says that this new department would help the Government prioritise infrastructure projects and raise finance for them from the private sector.
The Department for Transport (DfT) would cease to exist as a separate entity, and functions would be taken away from the Departments of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The report misses out housing, but this could logically be carved out of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
The Government Reshuffle
Doing this would need a reshuffle - and David Cameron is planning one for the autumn anyway. You wouldn't need a Secretary of State for Transport, so the well-regarded Justine Greening could be promoted away from a brief which includes Heathrow's expansion (or not), a toxic issue with her constituents.
The break-up of DCMS has long been mooted as a way for the PM to quietly move Jeremy Hunt without overtly sacking him. This proposal gives Cameron a way to split the department, move Hunt and potentially avoid empowering Vince Cable at BIS even further.
And by creating a department with a specific focus on infrastructure, the Government could reinvigorate their National Infrastructure Plan and create a minister whose job it was to bring in financing.
Will it work?
The infrastructure industry has complained for years that the Government doesn't take a joined up approach. New rail lines are planned without the power plants to provide the electricity, housing is built without new reservoirs to provide any water. A unified department could force everyone to work together. However, existing Government departments are perfectly capable of not working together internally, so marrying up the functions would be a big task.
That said, an infrastructure department would provide one focus, and one figurehead with which pension funds and other long-term investors could engage. If you could get the right ministers and civil servants at the top of the department, it could be very successful. Mind you, big departments have a mixed history as those who remember John Prescott's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will attest.
Will it happen?
David Cameron has been a small 'c' conservative as Prime Minister. He's much less fond of big, radical organisational decisions than Tony Blair was (Blair seemed to invent or rename a department almost annually and chopped and changed his ministers with alarming regularity).
But Cameron does need to undertake a reshuffle anyway, and this plan could lessen the pain of some of the big decisions.
I'd rate the chances of this happening as about 50/50. Watch this space.
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