Infrastructure planning must be separated from electioneering

The publication of general election manifestos naturally had us all poring over their details hunting for mentions of our pet projects. This is understandable insofar as big schemes like Crossrail 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail have been pitched against one another in the national imagination, their huge price tags intending to persuade voters of their transformational effects or instead as evidence of a party's profligacy.

But this is the most ludicrous way of going about planning for the nation's infrastructure. At a simple level, the big numbers are never explained. The fact that they might be written down over a thirty, fifty or even hundred-year payback periods is rarely considered and instead we are led to believe that multi-billion pound capital investments are somehow comparable with the cost of welfare benefits or teachers' pay.

More fundamentally though, political cycles are simply too short for rational infrastructure planning. This is apparently accounted for by the existence of separate transport spending rounds and a National Infrastructure Commission, but even these appear preoccupied with time-limited 'envelopes' of spending and a project-by-project approach. With CP6 and RIS2 now looming, do we really believe that the boffins in Whitehall, Network Rail or Highways England don't have half an eye on who will be the next transport minister? Even if the National Infrastructure Commission was created to inject great objectivity and long-termism into the approach, it has done little to dampen down the Crossrail 2 vs HS3 debate.

But just as planning cycles are too short, so decision-making is too centralised. In the absence of proper regional institutions with their own devolved budgets and fiscal clout, it really matters who wins the election. It is no surprise then that Transport for London and London First are making their daily pitch for Crossrail 2, nor that Transport for the North is finding its voice on Northern Powerhouse Rail.

In a more mature democracy it wouldn't have to be this way. Rather than stoking silly national beauty contests, all regions should have infrastructure planning bodies with long-term strategic priorities and fiscal powers to invest in a pipeline of inter-connected, multi-modal projects. TfL and TfN both stand ready for just such an approach if central government would only learn to let go. Now that would be a manifesto pledge worth fighting for.

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