Listening to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor or the Opposition front bench, you could easily be convinced that infrastructure development is the saviour of the economy. That without it, jobs and growth will be impaired and that to compete in the global market we have no option but to invest in our creaking national infrastructure. There is much to commend this argument. But until the cheque is written, no one should assume that the case for infrastructure is made. It still needs to be fought for.
Take Crossrail as an example. The project took decades to come to fruition. After taking three years to get through Parliament and gain its permissions, there were still delays. The Treasury wrote a cheque only after several statements of commitment, reviews of project costs and a simpler tunnelling strategy. There was an earlier deal on London's financial contribution as well. So while HS2 is progressing well through Parliament and could complete its passage by early 2016, the project is not guaranteed until the money is in place.
Money remains at the heart of whether infrastructure projects will really go ahead. There remains a fear of London-centric spending and cities across the UK are working hard to highlight their needs. The Northern Powerhouse may demonstrate that thinking is being given to cities outside London but a South West powerhouse, North East powerhouse and others are all bound to come forward with their own proposals.
Finances are limited and will continue to be so for the next Parliament and possibly beyond. That makes the role of local contributions, and those of businesses, to infrastructure projects even more attractive for the Government. This ties infrastructure development directly into the devolution agenda: many are some way from agreement. That could, in turn, have an impact on infrastructure.
The process of agreeing on project priorities to help speed things up is being considered. Most recently, the Armitt Commission produced its report for the Labour party and a draft Bill is being readied so that the party can move swiftly if it enters government after the election. Labour is also consulting on the draft remit for Sir John's proposed National Infrastructure Commission.
During debates in the Lords on the Infrastructure Bill, Sir John's idea enjoyed a large degree of cross-party consensus. However, in the heightened atmosphere of an election campaign and possible lengthy coalition negations the proposals will need as many friends as they can get.
Critically, infrastructure in the abstract may have cross-party support, but specific projects are a different matter altogether.
Local opposition to schemes remains high in many cases. Consultation can help and is a right and proper part of project development. However, in some cases, opposition will remain loud and vociferous. Take Heathrow expansion as a case in point.
The Liberal Democrats oppose any net increase in runways in the UK, and restated that commitment at their party conference. UKIP's policies have yet, in some areas, to be fully explored but its opposition to HS2 has been fairly consistent. That could mean that a new coalition government, should one be the outcome of the election, may not be as infrastructure- friendly as many expect.
Labour may want to make a decision on airport expansion soon after the Davies Commission has reported, but there is no timescale on that; and no party has agreed to abide by the outcome of the recommendations. Government departments do not help the situation. They remain siloed, so competition is still possible between them. This can affect the feasibility of projects. Part of the reforms of the civil service should be to move us beyond a mentality of winners and losers that still seems to permeate governmental discussions. Again, a possible National Infrastructure Commission could help here.
Crossrail and the Olympics show what can be achieved when projects get going – they can be completed on time and on budget. Just as the Olympics was an important case study for Crossrail, the latter will now become the project to learn from.
While there appears to be momentum and unanimity about infrastructure projects, a potential iceberg sits beneath the water line. Talking about infrastructure in the abstract allows politicians, especially in the run-up to an election, to speak in warm and glowing terms. Talking about specific schemes means they have to express an opinion and say where the money will come from. So though politicians from most parties are saying the right things, there remain many issues to be worked through.
Supporters of infrastructure development have to keep the fight going – battles have been won but the war continues.
Reference: Transport Times, March 2015 Issue
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