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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.