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.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation