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12 November 2022

The Tories failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining and now it’s all falling down

A decade and a half of ultra-low interest rates gave ministers the perfect opportunity to upgrade the fabric of this country. They didn’t.

By Jonn Elledge

The longer the Tories have been in power, the more the slogans on which David Cameron’s party (nearly) won the 2010 election have come to seem horribly, painfully ironic. There was “we can’t go on like this”, about a situation that was not great but was, broadly, sustainable and which the party has replaced, accidentally, with a series of rolling crises. There was “Broken Britain”, which was intended as a critique of Labour’s record in government, but has come to look increasingly like a campaign pledge (which, to be fair, has been delivered).

But the worst one – or at least, the one most likely to start me twitching uncontrollably whenever I think about it – is the repeated accusation that Labour “didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining”. This, a reference to the state of the public finances after the 2008 crash, has always annoyed me because while there are criticisms one can make, the biggest cause of the deficit was Britain’s dependence on the City for its tax revenues. And it’s extremely hard to envision a Tory government doing anything that might have saved us from that.

As the years have gone on, and the consequences of a decade of Tory government have played out, though, my irritation has come to focus on the Conservatives’ own failures. A decade and a half of ultra-low interest rates, and investors all but paying the government for the privilege of lending it money, gave ministers the perfect opportunity to upgrade the fabric of this country and invest in future growth. They didn’t take it: now it’s too late, interest rates are normalising, growth is stagnant and everything is falling to bits.

Start with housing. The increasingly obvious housing crisis led the parties to enter a bidding war on how many new homes they would build, with the Tories’ last manifesto settling on a figure of 300,000 a year. The last time the UK was building those kinds of numbers, in the third quarter of the 20th century, up to half of the total were being provided by the state. The current government, however, has predictably declined to do the same; so the number of home completions has failed to even get close to the target, and the increasingly silly cost of housing remain a significant drag factor on growth.

Of those houses that do exist, more than half remain poorly insulated, which means that, in winter, they literally leak heat. The government has shown little urgency about addressing this either and, as energy bills have spiked, that too is looking like an increasingly expensive mistake. The same crisis that led to those bills has meant the UK’s failure to build gas storage capacity has also been much in the headlines of late. But to that we could add its failure to build nuclear power stations, to make us less dependent on Russian gas in the first place; or its failure to build reservoirs, leading to headlines about water shortages; or its failure to invest in pipelines, to reduce leakages.

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Over in transport policy, High Speed Rail 2 is happening but it’s missing an arm, reducing the value of what actually is getting built. The Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme that was supposed to complement it, and make the region’s railways even a fraction as good as London’s, has been promised for a decade yet has not even a penny of funding guaranteed. Decent regional transport systems, of the sort that every city on the continent seems to take for granted, are nowhere to be seen.

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[See also: Housebuilding is far below the Conservatives’ manifesto target]

Oh, and Boris Johnson’s new hospital programme, which was meant to build 40 new hospitals by 2030, has gone so well that the National Audit Office has launched an investigation and even Tory MPs struggle to reference the programme without smirking.

The one exception, the one bit of capital investment ministers have actually shown enthusiasm for, is road transport. The government is currently planning for its third Road Investment Strategy, each of them comparable in cost to building another Crossrail. These seem to be the only sorts of capital projects this Tory party approves of. But even so, there’s still no sign of the long-proposed outer east London river crossings.

This past decade would have been the ideal time to do any of these things. Government borrowing was as cheap as it will ever be, and borrowing to fund investment is a way of boosting growth – to use the government’s favourite household budget analogy, misleading as it is, it’s more like borrowing to extend your house than running up a credit card bill. More than that, a bigger capital programme would have boosted demand and upskilled the workforce, making it easier to keep building things in future, and giving our construction companies more wares to sell on the international market.

Best of all, we’d have ended up with a better country, with lower energy bills, cheaper housing and better public transport, rather than one that’s visibly falling apart. Yes, responsibility for some of the things I just listed lies with the private sector. That is an argument against privatising infrastructure. It is not one against government investment.

But the government didn’t do any of this. Maybe it’s because it lacked the nerve to face down the Nimbys; maybe it genuinely believed that the only thing that mattered was driving spending down, and capital investment is always the easiest thing to cut. Or maybe it’s the fault of the Treasury, which remains convinced that public investment can only ever crowd out the private sector, and which knows only how to count costs, rather than to value assets.

It no longer really matters: whatever the reason, it’s too late. This Tory government had the perfect opportunity to fix the roof while the sun was shining, and didn’t take it. After 12 years, the hole is wider than ever – and now the storm is here.

[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t escape the Tories’ post-truth policies]