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

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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