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. 


Public Sector Gross Investment - OBR forecast of Labour plans

Public Sector Gross Investment under the Conservative-led government














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.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

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