Labour turns its guns on Osborne's infrastructure failures

New figures show that just seven of the 576 infrastructure projects planned by the coalition have been completed.

When Nick Clegg recently conceded that the coalition had cut infrastructure spending too fast after coming to power, he took care to assure us that all was now well. "I think we've all realised that you actually need, in order to foster a recovery, to try and mobilise as much public and private capital into infrastructure as possible," the Deputy PM said. 

While one welcomes the government's belated conversion to the merits of counter-cyclical spending (a rare concession to its Keynesian critics), the early results are not encouraging. Labour will use an opposition debate today to highlight new Treasury figures showing that just seven (1.2 per cent) of the 576 infrastructure projects planned by the coalition are "completed" or "operational" and that most of these are road schemes began under the last government. In addition, just 18.2 per cent of the projects are said to have "started" or to be "in construction" or "under construction".  

Clegg himself has previously expressed frustration over the timelag between projects being announced and completed. He remarked in a speech to the LSE in September 2011: "A key blockage is actually within government: Whitehall. Identifying projects and funnelling cash to them can take time – I understand that. These are big investments, and you have to get the detail right. But failure to deliver major infrastructure projects on time and on budget is a perennial problem in the UK."

The government's failure to improve its performance on this front is a matter of concern to the Lib Dems, with some blaming George Osborne's preference for Treasury "guarantees" over direct spending. In her column today, the Times's Rachel Sylvester reports that "Clegg and other senior Lib Dems are convinced that the Government needs to loosen the public purse strings and spend even more on infrastructure to stimulate the economy". 

After Clegg claimed that the coalition's capital spending cuts were "no more than what Alistair Darling spelt out anyway", Labour will also point to OBR figures (see below) showing that the government has spent £12.8bn less than Darling planned. 

Year

Public Sector Gross Investment - OBR forecast of Labour plans

Public Sector Gross Investment under the Conservative-led government

Difference

2010-11

£61.3bn

£58.1bn

£-3.2bn

2011-12

£50.7bn

£47.8bn

£-2.9bn

2012-13

£48.4bn

£41.7bn

£-6.7bn

The last time Rachel Reeves cited these figures, George Osborne accused her of "not being completely straight", a remark which earned him a rebuke from the Speaker. 

But even if one discounts the numbers for 2012-13 (which is still ongoing), the data shows that the coalition spent £6.1bn less in its first two years than Labour would have. Little wonder that the Lib Dems are urging Osborne to finally loosen the fiscal taps.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls visits a social housing project with shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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