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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt