Barely 48 hours since the Queen pronounced his professional demise, Sir Michael Pitt contemplates the future with surprising equanimity and indeed optimism.
The fate of at least four new nuclear power stations, a slew of wind farms, M1 roadworks and a handful of overhead power lines currently rests with the mildly spoken quango chairman.
David Cameron has pledged to return the power to rule on multi-billion-pound contentious projects from Sir Michael to ministers. But Sir Michael appears confident this change will not mark a reversion to the “failed …expensive, time-consuming” system of old, where planning delays meant that constructing Sizewell B nuclear power station took more than a decade.
Relaxing in his markedly modest Bristol office, the chairman of the Infrastructure Planning Commission reveals that his board has just responded to its official axing by agreeing to lobby ministers to take on more staff. Indeed, Sir Michael signals that he expects this growth to continue – albeit under a different nameplate after the body’s official abolition.
“The workload coming towards us is extremely heavy and we will need to expand the size of the organisation to cope with that during the next 12 months,” Sir Michael explains.
“If I was a developer [seeking planning permission], I would carry on exactly as I was…The jobs of many people in this building will continue into the future.”
This week’s Queen’s Speech confirmed that the commission, operational for less than a year, will be axed under a new “decentralisation and localism” bill. So why does Sir Michael, an urbane veteran of local government politics, appear confident of life after parliamentary death for his organisation?
The answer to this seeming paradox explains why the new government may find it harder than some expect to garner painless cost savings from the looming cull of the quangos.
The commission’s work – fast-tracking decisions on new power stations, wind farms, roads and other vital infrastructure – will still be needed in the future. A scattering of orange dots on the map on Sir Michael’s wall shows the sites of dozens of planning battles to come.
Despite the new legislation, much of the quango’s work is expected to continue as originally intended, under a newly created “major infrastructure unit” within the civil service.
“The processes that we’ve introduced, the computer systems, the ways of working …and the nature of the people that we need …will be much the same in the future,” Sir Michael predicts. “This floor here is the engine room, we make things happen. What is changing …is the final decision making.”
That switch in the final decision making alarms business. The government says it has yet to decide which secretary of state will take up this role. Will applications for power stations be decided by Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, or Chris Huhne, the energy secretary whose Liberal Democrat party is opposed to new nuclear?
Neither prospect is viewed with enthusiasm by industry groups. “We remain concerned that political considerations could impinge on critical national priorities,” Steve Radley, of the EEF manufacturers’ body, says.
David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, warns that business is “extremely disappointed” with the axing of the commission and has “serious concerns” about its replacement.
The axing of the commission is unlikely to make a dent in the deficit. Its modest budget – about £5m to £7m this year – will be partially recouped by fees. And the continuation of its work under another guise means most of its costs will continue.
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published