‘Major policy projects are a marathon, not a sprint’ – National Infrastructure Commission chief James Heath’s lessons from 2022

The NIC chief exec reflects on delivering the National Infrastructure Assessment and securing a new office in Leeds
A new bridge that will carry HS2 services across the M42 motorway in Warwickshire, which was moved into place last month Photo: HS2 Ltd

By CSW staff

03 Jan 2023


What has been your highlight of the last 12 months? 

As a Yorkshireman I was particularly pleased that we have secured a new office in Leeds, which will open early in 2023. It’s also great that we will hopefully be co-located with the new UK Investment Bank, with whom we already work closely. The commission’s role is to provide independent advice to government on the UK’s major, long-term infrastructure needs – what to build and how to make it happen, if you like – whereas the bank helps provide finance for projects that wouldn’t happen if left to the market alone.

What was your most difficult decision in 2022? 

Supporting commissioners in deciding the scope of the next National Infrastructure Assessment, to be published in autumn 2023. We have anchored the project around net zero, climate resilience and regional growth – major objectives that will stand the test of time. But the commission’s remit stretches across all economic infrastructure sectors so deciding on the specific priorities to focus on, amidst a shifting political and economic landscape, has been challenging. 

What is the biggest challenge facing the NIC in 2023, and how do you plan to meet that challenge as an organisation? 

Delivering the second National Infrastructure Assessment. It’s our landmark product, that only comes round once every five years. And we’re uniquely placed to offer expert advice that looks beyond political cycles and cuts across traditional silos. Infrastructure is key to helping solve some of society’s biggest economic and environmental challenges – but achieving this will require both big capital

“My advice is never pick up a ringing desk phone that isn’t yours on Christmas Eve. I sadly failed this test one year, and was stuck until 10pm completing a lengthy task for a senior executive”

investment and the right policy and regulation. So, we’re trying to help policymakers and infrastructure operators square the circle of scaling up investment at the same time as considerable constraints on the public’s ability to pay for it. We will do that through rigorous evidence based analysis of costs and benefits, including novel tools to look at carbon and distributional impacts. And of course, strong project management. 

And personally, as a leader? 

Resilience. A major policy project like the National Infrastructure Assessment is a marathon, not a sprint – but you need to keep up a steady, consistent pace across the race to have any chance of crossing the finishing line with a world-class piece of analysis. 

It's not only Santa who has to work at Christmas. What is your best, worst or weirdest experience of working in the festive season? 

Perhaps a pre-digital problem – but my advice is never pick up a ringing desk phone that isn’t yours on Christmas Eve, or if you do, don’t divulge your name until understand what the caller wants. I sadly failed this test one year some time back, and was stuck until 10pm completing a lengthy task for a senior executive…

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