Talk is cheap: why the gap between rhetoric and reality in the coalition’s infrastructure policy matters

Ministers should not be under any illusion that public spending on high carbon projects offers a quick economic fix.

Amid all the headlines about the biggest programme of road building for 40 years and announcements of new support for fracking, you would be forgiven for thinking that the recent Comprehensive Spending Review meant an abandonment of plans to decarbonise Britain’s economy. Thankfully, that’s not what our analysis of the Treasury’s own numbers shows as the plans for upgrading Britain’s infrastructure still remain focussed on public transport and renewable energy. However, there are major contradictions at the heart of the government’s policy, which risk deterring the very private sector investors who are needed to implement many of these projects.

There is a marked contrast between the government’s approaches to its fiscal and environmental responsibilities. They happen to be compatible principles but they need to be seen in perspective. Our children will care more about the state of the physical world they will occupy as adults than whether they inherit government debt of 80 rather than 90 per cent of GDP. Yet the government appears to focus all its visible efforts on the fiscal front, like a first world war general celebrating every tiny advance, irrespective of the huge sacrifices made. Meanwhile, on the environmental front, quiet progress has been made with decarbonising our energy system in recent years. Further huge strides can be made by pressing ahead with long standing plans for renewables and public transport.

There is also a contradiction in the promotion of private rather than public sector activities. When it comes to jobs, the government champions the ability of Britain’s private sector to create new jobs to offset those lost in the public sector and trusts in its ability to carry on doing this. Yet when it comes to infrastructure, it celebrates public spending on roads planned for the next parliament more than ongoing private investment in renewable energy.

The disconnection between rhetoric and reality can be seen clearly when you look at the plans for both public and private investment. The Comprehensive Spending Review heralded £20bn of public money for roads between 2015-2020, yet that is only about half of the planned spending on the railways of £38bn. The contrast for private sector investments in energy is even more striking. According to data gathered by the Treasury for its infrastructure pipeline, there are plans for around £10bn of gas related projects between 2015-2020. By contrast, there are plans for four times this investment in offshore wind, which could see an injection of £39bn by the private sector.

Some might think it doesn’t matter what politicians say, as long as the right plans are in place, but this overlooks the role of political leadership in shaping private sector expectations. As most of our low-carbon infrastructure will be delivered by the private sector, investor confidence is vital if these projects are to go ahead. However, confidence in the UK’s low carbon direction has fallen dramatically because of the perception that the coalition is divided on decarbonisation. As a result, investors have been delaying financial decisions, or expecting higher returns on their investments to cover risks. Indeed, the 50 per cent fall in new orders for infrastructure in the first quarter of this year serves as an early warning of the danger that the ambitious plans might not come to fruition.

This uncertainty is unnecessary and damaging. It comes at a time when Britain desperately needs sustained economic growth, supported by productive infrastructure that helps to rebalance the economy away from consumption.  This is the only way the government will be able to make good on its promise to restore the public finances.  The sheer scale of existing plans for low carbon infrastructure projects, means that they offer the fastest route to boosting growth. Conversely, cancelling these projects would leave a major hole in our investment plans and risk knocking us back into recession.

Some ministers have a tendency talk up high carbon infrastructure, perhaps hoping to protect themselves against criticism from climate sceptics or other opponents of renewable energy policy. But they should not be under any illusion that public spending on high carbon projects offers a quick economic fix. The government’s own numbers show the opposite as the majority of the UK’s infrastructure activity is clean and low carbon. Boasting about spending public money on roads, whilst sounding lukewarm on private investment in renewables, endangers both our economic recovery and our low-carbon future.

Julian Morgan is the chief economist for Green Alliance

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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