How Osborne can avoid more failure on infrastructure

Three years have been wasted as infrastructure 'plans' have failed to progress to projects. In the Spending Review, the Chancellor has a chance to reverse course.

There will be a sense of déjà vu on Wednesday when George Osborne stands up to announce "a long-term infrastructure plan" to help the economy move from "rescue to recovery". Nearly three years have passed since the Chancellor published his first National Infrastructure Plan. This document has subsequently been updated twice with small amounts of additional cash, such as an extra £5bn of capital investment last year, promised along the way.

We’ve now had a chance to assess whether these plans have actually materialised and what they have meant for the UK economy. The truth is that they haven’t amounted to much. In the first three years of this government, public sector net investment fell from £38.5bn to £24.3bn as the cuts kicked in. Although Labour had also planned a rapid reduction in capital investment, the Tories cut an extra £4.3bn.

The infrastructure 'plan' – perhaps better termed a wish list – currently includes 550 projects worth £310bn but just seven have been listed as "completed" or "operational". The latest set of construction figures show that output in the industry fell 4.7 per cent in the last year while output in the sector is down 12.1 per cent since the Chancellor first announced "new investments in the economic infrastructure" at his first Spending Review. Jobs in the sector have fallen too with 84,000 lost since the last election.

Not only have the government’s plans failed to live up to their billing, they are also poorly targeted at the regions that need most help. Transport spending is skewed dramatically to London and the south east. New analysis by IPPR shows that each Londoner will benefit 500 times as much as each person in the north east; 150 times as much as each person in the south west; 20 times as much as in the north west; and 16 times as much as in Yorkshire and the Humber. The top five most expensive regional public sector projects are all allocated to the south, London and the midlands. None of the top five projects are allocated to the north.

While there is a pipeline for transport, there is little for housing which remains one of the country’s weakest areas. Figures released at the end of last year revealed that starts for affordable home ownership were down 80 per cent from 3,197 to 629 since 2010. Starts for social rent did even worse - down 95 per cent. In other sectors, like energy, the government have given mixed signals about their ambition which has prompted CBI boss, John Cridland, to say, "This kind of uncertainty does not breed confidence - in fact, it scares markets and drives up the cost of capital". 

On The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Ed Balls challenged the Chancellor to announce an extra £10bn of capital spending. If the Chancellor follows his opposite number’s advice, there are three tests that he must follow. First, spending must be targeted at the areas that need it most. Housing, energy and transport are the most critical areas for new investment. There’s a strong case for devolving total housing spending – benefits and new build – to local authorities to help them shift the balance towards more construction. And in those areas that don’t typically require public funds, like privately financed energy projects, the government needs to do more to sing from the same hymn sheet and set the right tone for investment.

Second, the investment must do more to rebalance the economy from south to north. It’s absurd that Transport for London has a devolved budget while other regions of England do not. The government’s new infrastructure plan, which Danny Alexander is expected to unveil on Thursday, must include an analysis of how the proposals are underpinned by a commitment to regional rebalancing. Those extra resources which are available should be dedicated by Network Rail, the Environment Agency and other agencies to bring forward infrastructure projects outside of London.

Third, the government must ensure that all the new projects contribute to the decarbonisation of the economy, which is essential if Britain is to play its part in preventing catastrophic climate change. Road repairs should take priority over new roads as the Campaign for Better Transport has argued. Projects to improve the energy efficiency of homes and businesses, which create large numbers of jobs in the construction industry, must be prioritised. And ministers must start singing from the same hymn sheet on renewables.

A recovery was under way in 2010 before the government slammed on the brakes and removed the stimulus. Three years have been wasted as infrastructure 'plans' have failed to progress to projects. If the government is serious this time, it must ensure that it addresses Britain’s weak points, rebalances the economy, and help us go green.

George Osborne helps paint a picture of Canary Wharf during a visit to Old Ford Primary School on June 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.