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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Labour must unite idealists and nativists to beat Ukip

The party has no coherent economic policy, says Labour donor John Mills. 

The heart of the dilemma faced by Labour is that, by and large, its working-class supporters think that you should look after your own first and everyone else afterwards, while its more idealistic middle-class supporters don’t share these nativist views. Add to this the fact that the Labour party nowadays is more middle class, more internationalist, more public sector-orientated, more metropolitan, more intellectual and less interested in winning elections than it has ever been before, and you can see why Ukip is a huge potential threat.

Ukip started by attracting mainly disaffected Conservative voters who thought their party was weak on the EU and who didn’t like David Cameron’s liberal approach to social issues. More recently, especially during the EU referendum, Ukip picked up a huge amount of Labour support. Of the 9.3m people who voted Labour in the 2015 general election, close to 3.5m of them voted for Leave – and half of these people say they are not going to vote Labour in future. Where are they going to go?

The crucial issue is whether Ukip, having gone through all its recent traumas, will get its act together to scoop up these footloose voters. Up to now, the glue which has held Ukip together has been hostility to the EU and distrust of the political establishment. It has lacked coherent policy. This leaves Ukip still essentially a protest operation rather than as a potentially governing party. But this could change. 

With Labour now increasingly idealistic rather than nativist, Ukip may pull together a string of policies that promise support for working-class solidarity, immigration restrictions, social conservatism and a reindustrialisation plan – very much the platform which won Donald Trump the US presidency. Such a manifesto could attract sufficiently widespread working-class support to make large numbers of Labour seats vulnerable. Ukip came second in 120 constituencies during the 2015 general election. There doesn’t have to be a very large swing for Ukip to start picking up enough seats to make the prospect of a future Labour government more and more remote.

Faced with this prospect, what can Labour do? Three key strategies suggest themselves. One is to avoid alienating potential Labour supporters by trying to persuade them that they should have voted Remain. On the contrary, the party must clearly accept the referendum result, and fight hard and constructively towards getting the best possible Brexit deal. 

Second, Ukip is weak on economic policy. It is all very well to promise reindustrialisation and better jobs, but how is Ukip going to fulfil them? Populism shades very easily into protectionism. There is a principled case for open markets to produce more prosperity - but this may only be possible if there are also changes to monetary and exchange rate policy to avoid unmanageable commercial competition. Ukip may, like the Labour party, find this a hard case to make.

Third, Labour needs to change its tone. There needs to be less talk of abstract universal values and more of concrete steps to improve people’s lives. Labour must celebrate working-class attitudes to self-help, trade unionism, mutual support, patriotism and solidarity. The party must build on the huge influx of members, not least because they are the cadres for the future, but it also must avoid alienating old supporters with many years of experience and commitment. It is up to the party leadership to create such a change.

As it stands, too many Labour people are still trying to derail Brexit. The party has no coherent economic policy and it still looks too London-centric, divorced from its working-class roots. Not a good place to be if Ukip pulls itself together. 

John Mills is a businessman and a Labour donor. He founded the group Labour Leave ahead of the EU referendum and has recently published the pamphlet "Why Trump Won"