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 Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR