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: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder