National infrastructure commission to get the UK building
The chancellor, George Osborne, has recently announced the formation of a new national infrastructure commission, in order to draw up priorities for infrastructure spending. The commission will be independent of government. The chancellor hopes that its recommendations will be accepted by all main political parties as part of a national consensus, so that there is consistent support for important projects, rather than having them chopped and changed whenever there is a change of government.
The former Labour minister, Lord Adonis, has been appointed to lead the commission, and has resigned the Labour whip in order to do so. Among the other members will be the former Conservative deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine. It is hoped that its high-level cross-party membership will help the national infrastructure commission to get the UK building again.
Failure of successive governments on infrastructure
Mr. Osborne stated that the new body would consider ‘dispassionately and independently’ the country’s infrastructure requirements. He said that, ‘We haven’t done enough of that in our country in the past, and as a result the British people have to spend longer than they should getting to work; they pay more than they should in energy bills; they can’t buy the homes they want, all because of the failure of successive governments, and the societies that elected those governments, to think long term.’ The commission will cover transport, energy, communications and flood defences. The initial priorities for the commission are expected to be energy infrastructure, and also transport connections between northern cities and within the London area.
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, welcomed the commission, stating that it had originally been a Labour party idea. However, he doubted that the necessary funds would be available for the commission to be effective. He claimed that infrastructure spending had declined since the Conservatives had been in power, and was likely to continue to decrease.
National infrastructure commission to get the UK building, using finance from asset sales
The government plans to finance the new infrastructure via sales of state assets, such as land and buildings. The chancellor stated that the government plans to raise infrastructure spending by up to £5bn over the course of this parliament.
While most commentators would agree that substantially more needs to be spent on the UK’s creaking infrastructure, it remains to be seen whether the national infrastructure commission will get the UK building or not. The final decisions on government infrastructure spending will remain with ministers. Previous governments have had similar plans to increase infrastructure spending, which tended to be blown off course by the need to finance current, rather than capital, expenditure. No government in recent years has dared to significantly raise taxes to finance infrastructure projects. With many hospitals running large deficits, and strong resistance to cuts in both tax credits and policing, it may be that the government will eventually resort to the usual expedient procedure of cutting back on building projects to finance current expenditure. However, if the chancellor and the new commission really do preside over a genuinely significant increase in infrastructure building, they will leave a lasting legacy to the country, which is more than can be said for most politicians.
CITB Website, ‘Infrastructure body to get Britain building again’, (5th October 2015). http://www.citb.co.uk/news-events/uk/infrastructure-body-to-get-britain-building/
Perraudin, F., ‘George Osborne launches national infrastructure commission’, The Guardian, (30th October 2015). http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/30/osborne-launches-national-infrastructure-commission