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.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

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