The language of priorities. What we talk about when we talk about infrastructure

The language of priorities. What we talk about when we talk about infrastructure

Infrastructure is a grand word.  Politicians use it with a grandiosity to match.  Ever since Augustus boasted that he found Rome made of brick but left it made of marble, rulers and politicians have most prized projects that leave a lasting impact on the minds of their subjects.  You can’t blame them.  There’s a glamour about a plutonium-powered hyperloop that impresses the general public in a way that upgrading the sewerage or incremental improvements to public wifi speeds will never manage.  So if you’re a politician looking for electoral bang for your buck, you’re going to look for something with as high a public profile as possible.

The needs of politicians are not necessarily the same as the needs of the country.  For example, Harold Wilson no doubt thought that securing victory in the Hull North by-election merited the pledge to build the Humber bridge.  Its value as an infrastructure project, however, is questionable. 

The finite resources of government provide a curb to the vote-buying antics of politicians.  They also require politicians to choose where to invest in infrastructure: unlike the caucus race, not everyone can have prizes.  There are going to be winners and losers.

Both questions – where to invest in infrastructure and which projects – can be and are analysed by reference to economic return.  These figures are much considered in private and barely discussed in public.  Why?  Because the answers they produce are extremely awkward politically.

How so?  Well, Vulcan logic tells you that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  That means that projects in areas where the many are found are almost inevitably going to look like a better bet.  Similarly, projects in areas which are economically thriving are often going to be easier to justify on economic grounds because the greater initial economic wealth of the area requires only a small uplift from the project to count, while a much poorer area might require a far bigger uplift from a project to get to the same absolute level of improvement.   

So we would expect, all other things being equal, for London in particular to do very well indeed out of infrastructure projects, other large successful cities to do well too and for large poor sparsely-populated areas like the north east to do poorly.  And that is, pretty much, what we get to see.  There’s a reason why Heathrow’s new terminal is being given the go-ahead at the same time that the train network in the north is in chaos.  There’s a reason why Crossrail 2 is on the agenda at a time when the TransPennine Express upgrade is apparently being shelved.  Economically, developing infrastructure to support London should be the overwhelming priority for Britain.  Successive governments have tacitly accepted that priority.

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.  This is good scripture but bad politics.  So you get regular justifiable complaints about the metropolitan bias of infrastructure projects (and silly comments like the tweet from IPPR North, who really should know better).  An economic approach which focuses on single projects will inevitably tend to concentrate infrastructure spending in London and other successful cities.

This cycle can only really be broken if government looks at projects not just on a piecemeal basis but as part of a wider development plan for an area.  There are plenty of past examples of the government trying to do this.  This is the thinking behind the introduction of metropolitan mayors, of the Northern Powerhouse and development areas in general.  With few exceptions – ironically, the obvious one, Docklands, being in London – these have not been pursued so far with sufficient consistency and sense of purpose to be effective.  At best they have broken the fall.

If no action is taken, economics will in practice ensure that by default infrastructure spending will be focused on the successful areas of Britain in general and London in particular.  Success will breed success.  Less talked about, failure will breed failure.  Poor rural areas and smaller towns can expect to be left behind.  They already have been.

What can be done?  If allocated infrastructure budgets are not just administered but controlled at a regional level, we have the prospect of revitalising those regions.  As already noted, the metropolitan mayors no doubt hope to achieve exactly that – they all have a 30 year investment fund.  Whether that is enough to turn things around, time will tell.  The Northern Powerhouse seems to be falling by the wayside as a project.  This threatens to be a serious missed opportunity to galvanise a part of the country that could sorely do with a protective coating to prevent further rusting.

That also leaves a lot of areas – a majority of the country – which are having their infrastructure needs dealt with on a piecemeal basis.  As things stand, their decline looks almost inevitable.  If you don’t live in or near a successful large city and you don’t live in a tourist area, the government is failing to prepare for you.  So you should be prepared to fail.

Alastair Meeks

Comments are closed.