National Infrastructure Commission chief Phil Graham on 2017 & why Britain must "banish the culture of dither and delay"

Written by Civil Service World on 19 December 2016 in Interview

With the end of 2016 fast approaching, we asked the UK's top officials to look back at the year, outline their goals for 2017 – and shed some light on their festive favourites. Sir Malcolm McKibbin, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, takes part in our annual perm secs round-up...

National Infrastructure Commission chief executive Phil Graham. Image: Photoshot

What was your highlight of 2016?
For the National Infrastructure Commission it’s obvious, the publication of our first three reports – Smart Power, Transport for a World City, and High Speed North. Just five and a half months after the commission was established, here we had three serious reports making bold recommendations to government. Those studies put the NIC on the map and secured more than £400m of investment for vital infrastructure projects across the country. 

Looking at UK infrastructure as a whole it is hard to see past two decisions which felt like they were never going to arrive – Heathrow and Hinkley. If the UK is to get serious about planning and delivering the infrastructure we need to compete we have to banish the culture of dither and delay. These decisions were a couple of big steps in the right direction.   

What has been the most significant change in your organisation this year?
We have grown exponentially. At the start of the year the NIC was a handful of eager, if overworked, enthusiasts working out of a dark corner of the Treasury. Today we are a bustling and busy office of our own in the City, growing in number and expertise almost by the week. 

What will be the biggest challenge of 2017 – and how are you preparing to meet it?
The National Infrastructure Assessment will be a world first in size and scope. We will look at every sector of the UK’s economic infrastructure both individually and, crucially, at the connections between them. Understanding that “system of systems” will be key. Next year we publish our “Vision and Priorities”. It will be an enormous piece of work. 

What was the best Christmas present that you’ve ever given or received? And the worst?
In December 2001, I spent a long time in HMV trying to work out whether R.E.M.’s or Ryan Adams’ album would be the present that would give my new girlfriend the right impression of me as left-field and cutting edge yet sensitive. I have since been informed by my wife that R.E.M. would have been a dumpable offence.

More: Perm secs round-up 2016 – Britain's top civil servants review the year and look ahead to 2017

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