Wanted: a Secretary of State for Infrastructure

After some neglect, the UK is ramping up investment in its economic infrastructure. A Minister for Infrastructure should now lead the charge, writes Alexander Jan.

George Osborne's 2013 budget, which aims to trim department spending to support infrastructure projects, is encouraging – to a degree. We're surrounded by economic stagnation, and there's general consensus that Britain will not be able to compete internationally without major investment in its economic infrastructure.

The Government's own National Infrastructure Plan notes that:

…many power stations are ageing, road congestion is a growing concern, train punctuality in the UK is worse than in other parts of Europe and in the longer term there will be an airport capacity challenge in the South East of England.

Few readers could disagree with this. And without action it is going to get worse. Energy analysts darkly talk of power outages if the country's generating capacity is not renewed, official forecasts point to big increases in congestion on the road network. As the UK's population grows and economic confidence (and growth) finally return, airports risk once again reaching bursting point. Even Crossrail, the new east to west rail link being carved out under London, will need supplementing with a second scheme and possibly others.

The £3bn which George Osborne recently announced for housing and other infrastructure projects is only the tip of a £400bn iceberg. Power, telecommunications, transport, waste and water are queuing up for this investment. But in an age of austerity and with a long term desire to reduce the size of the state's take of national income, the Government hopes that pension funds, banks and other private investors will stump up more than two thirds of requirements. That would be a remarkable triumph of hope over experience.

The reality is that successive governments have shifted spending away from capital formation. At the same time, private investment in fixed assets has decreased. Taken together, UK investment in property, plant and equipment has lagged behind our competitors since the late 1990s. Amongst them, infrastructure investment averaged 3.5 per cent of GDP over the last decade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that British infrastructure investment was as low as 2.5 per cent of GDP in the same period. More worryingly, analysis by Arup (using data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies) shows that UK public investment has actually fallen in real terms from around £52bn in 2009/10 to an expected £24.6bn in 2012/13. Further declines are forecast to the end of this parliament. This fiscal reality sits uncomfortably with Treasury aspirations.

Few commentators or ministers question the need for increased infrastructure investment. Billions of pounds are looking for infrastructure opportunities, we are told. But somehow they are failing to fully connect. Britain is a preferred destination for international capital. It has tried and tested investment models (think water), a stable legal system, low political risk and lots of infrastructure expertise. All this raises the question as to whether the UK's machinery of government is right. The National Infrastructure Plan itself can provide only so many clues about the Government's overarching investment strategy. Some would argue it reflects the UK's department-centric approach to major project planning. Changing that requires more than a plan.

Government is moving in the direction of improving leadership around infrastructure. Infrastructure UK, a Treasury body, provides some long-term focus on the UK's infrastructure priorities. The Chancellor has announced a set of initiatives to enhance Whitehall's capacity to support private investment across the infrastructure sphere. Guarantees and co-lending and equity investment by the state, are intended to accelerate projects that developers are struggling to finance or where commercial lending appetite falls short. To orchestrate funding and development, the Chancellor has focused the work of the incoming Commercial Secretary to the Treasury on infrastructure development. The Treasury may now appear more "joined up". But are the departments of state?

A Department for Infrastructure should be created. This super ministry would provide more than leadership for spending departments. It could consolidate infrastructure resources and talent spread thinly through the rest of Whitehall. It would give the Prime Minister a mechanism for knocking heads together and ensuring delivery. It could oversee the development of effective frameworks including reforms already in train, to bring in private sector investment to boost growth and competiveness across the countries and city regions of the UK. It could be the agent for delivering a big part of Lord Heseltine's forty billion pound "challenge" fund. It could provide a strong delivery partner for the all-powerful Treasury. With firm delivery objectives that would not be lost in departments' business plans, its minister would be high profile. It would be a potent department of state that senior politicians and civil servants would fight over. There would be a real sense of urgency to get things done and join them up with local government.

This new department of state could be modelled on those found in other Commonwealth countries. Australia integrates infrastructure leadership with its transport ministry. Their Department of Infrastructure and Transport adopts a national strategic function, advising regional governments. It coordinates construction timing and investment decisions under a cabinet-level minister. In Canada which has an enviable track record on securing private sector investment, there is a Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.

As leading UK economist Dieter Helm has pointed out, Britain is in knots over infrastructure. A Department for Infrastructure might just help slice through them.

The Crossrail shaft in Farringdon. Photograph: Getty Images

Alexander Jan is a consultant at Arup.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle