Infrastructure should be an electoral flashpoint

Both the government and the opposition are scared of big, slow-return, risky projects – but Britain needs modernisation.

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David Cameron and his UK Tory Party are managing a remarkable feat in the run-up to the General Election: they are being so lame on the question of infrastructure that they even make Labour, a government that has ducked far too many important decisions about infrastructure, look like the party more likely to make the investment the British economy so desperately needs.

The Conservative Party’s Green Paper, Control Shift: Returning Power to Local Communities, proclaims a retreat from the global economy into the cozy villages of the local. Dave apparently just knows that ‘the small, the personal and the local work with the grain of human nature and not against it’.

Part of this shift to localism is driven by a pledge to abolish the Labour quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC), in favour of public inquiries into major national infrastructure projects. The IPC was created in an effort to speed up the byzantine planning process, but has been under fire recently as a waste of money. Though the Commission is up and running, it cannot actually get on with making any decisions because the legal guidelines required to allow it to approve new projects have not been created. Projects such as nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point and Sizewell, and high-voltage transmission lines to Avonmouth, will have to wait.

But Tory opposition to the IPC has been criticised by Greenpeace as ‘meaning more delays and uncertainty’ about investment in nuclear, by Building Futures (‘this would not be in the interests of the national economy’), by the Energy Networks Association (‘the IPC is the most effective way of addressing the urgent need to build the energy networks that will secure our energy supplies’), and by the CBI, which warned Cameron he would be to blame ‘if the lights go out’.

Although Tory objections to the IPC are couched in the language of promoting democratic accountability, they are really pandering to not-in-my-back-yard (Nimby) sentiment and the anti-growth ideas that exist in a variety of green organisations, more broadly in society and, increasingly, among economists like Lord Layard. The Tories are now opposed to new runways at Heathrow and Stansted airports and have only committed to getting planning permission for new nuclear power stations – never mind actually pouring any concrete – by 2017. Given the potential for blackouts as the current generation of nuclear stations is closed, this is far too relaxed a timetable.

The IPC may or may not be the body we need to solve Britain’s planning bottleneck, but we certainly do need national decisions made on infrastructure and the government needs the power to deliver them. Once the decision to build, for example, new power stations has been made, opponents shouldn’t be able to use the planning process to prevent this from happening. As far as possible, constructive local criticism should be welcomed; it may result in a better end product. But ultimately, national priorities, democratically agreed, should override anywhere-but-here sentiments.

If the Tory proposals are bad, Labour has no right to the moral high ground. Labour has an appalling track record of failure in investing properly in infrastructure over the past 13 years. Britain’s motorways were largely designed and built in the 1960s and 70s, but there has been precious little major road-building in the past few years. Despite a shortage of water-storage capacity, particularly in the south-east of England, there is more interest in reducing demand than increasing supply. The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) is only the latest of a series of bodies over the past few decades to fail to formulate a national policy for radioactive waste management. The UK is over-reliant on gas-fired power stations, but the current government has done little to provide alternatives.

The ongoing tragic farce of our railways is embodied in a variety of failed and underperforming organisations like Railtrack, the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail. Even transport secretary Lord Adonis’s recent plan to expand high-speed rail services in the UK was promoted less as a means of getting around quickly, and more as a means to reduce the demand for flights. In reality, we need more flights, faster trains and wider roads.

There is an ideological impasse in the face of the pressing need for massive investment by the state to support the economy. Despite the talk of democracy, accountability and transparency, there is no national democratic debate about what what sort of economy we want and what would be required to create it.

What we really need is a case for infrastructure in its own terms. Whatever the environmental concerns, for example, and whatever the gains of energy efficiency improvements may be, the UK requires absolutely more energy to expand the economy. Ofgem has stated that £200billion needs to be invested in new power infrastructure by 2020.

The same applies to transport: at both an inter-regional and intra-regional level, good transport allows people and businesses to spread out, improving quality of life at home and reducing costs associated with high land and house prices. Recent events on the railways illustrate both negatively and positively the benefits of better railways. While the regional Thameslink service that runs from north to south through London has been a shambles in recent months, regularly preventing staff from getting to work on time – if at all – the new high-speed line to Kent has improved journey times and opened up the King’s Cross hub to a whole new set of commuters.

The benefits to the economy of better transport, energy and communications can be many, including: lower distribution costs; faster speed to market; creation of jobs; real regeneration for northern industrial towns; involvement of workers in areas with lower living costs; and a lower cost of capital. If offices and businesses can spread out nationally, knowing that good communications and transport links allow people to get together easily when required, that’s useful, too.

Moreover, once infrastructure is in place, people can find their own innovative ways to use it. Provide the energy, transport and information networks and let people use their imagination. Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, would not have imagined e-commerce, TV programme streaming or the multiple other uses of the web when he devised it to allow particle physicists to share information more easily. And while progress in computing power might be driven forward by the needs of consumers and businesses, it also enables rapid, affordable sequencing of DNA – with scores of potential medical and agricultural benefits.

Not investing in infrastructure will not only fail to move us forwards – it will actually mean the UK falling behind the rest of the world. The Institution of Civil Engineers has stated that without reform of the UK planning system, the country ‘is in danger of not having the infrastructure it needs to operate’. We can see this happening already with our slow broadband network, which holds back the adoption of cloud computing services that could significantly cut business costs. The current network can be overstretched simply by the introduction of new technologies like the BBC’s iPlayer service.

Simply moving goods and people around more efficiently matters, too. There is no point in improving productivity at the workplace if staff or products are stuck in traffic, but arguments for improving air transport have died in the face of the anger of local villages and worthy eco-celebs like Emma Thompson and Alistair McGowan.

There are some success stories in the UK that demonstrate that engineering skills are available if the political will is there. For example, the building work for the 2012 Olympics in London seems to be on schedule. The M6 toll road has provided a speedy way of bypassing a notorious motorway logjam around Birmingham.

However, there is so much more we could be doing. America has just overturned 30 years of opposition to new nuclear plants with plans to invest £5billion to create 3,500 construction jobs and power for 1.4million people. Brazil is building the giant hydroelectric Belo Monte dam in the Amazon: an £11billion investment that could power 23million homes. South Korea is investing in eyewateringly fast, one gigabit-per-second broadband, bringing the idea of an ‘information superhighway’ to life. As for China, its ongoing growth is in large part fuelled by massive levels of investment in public works of every kind: road, rail, airports, ports, pipelines; the list seems endless.

Political will is crucial because from nuclear and wind power to fast internet and high-speed rail, these are big, costly, slow-return, risky projects that will not happen without state guarantees and activism. The market will not provide on its own in most cases, or will do so too slowly, in part because of the history of cost and time overruns on projects like the Channel Tunnel or new nuclear stations in Finland and France. There is a real aversion on the part of our political leaders to take the difficult decisions required; instead, decisions are continually outsourced to inquiries, quangos and consultants, or left to local authorities.

Instead of this paralysis, we need a real democratic debate about what sort of economy we want to live in. We cannot afford to allow Labour to put infrastructure ‘above politics’, as Lord Adonis has argued, but equally we will be ill-served by Tory attempts to go local and put these matters effectively ‘below politics’. Those of us who still believe in economic growth and prosperity need to win a public argument in favour of an active and ambitious infrastructure policy and the need for investment.

Power stations, roads, airports and cable networks may not be the sexiest political issues right now, but we must not shunt them into the sidings of planning control and Nimby green carping.

Angus Kennedy is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Economy Forum. Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. This article is based on one of the themes from the Institute of Ideas Political Pledge Card which will be launched at the Battle for Politics Pre-Election Public Summit on Saturday 20 March in central London.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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