Coffee House

Labour’s infrastructure plans are good enough for George Osborne to steal

3 July 2014

6:12 PM

3 July 2014

6:12 PM

In some countries, infrastructure planning can be exciting. Two years ago, I was watching a group of Dutch civil servants gleefully manoeuvring a DeLorean sports car around a conference hall, its wheels squealing on the polished floor.

Why? Because the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment was holding a summit, and the theme was, you’ve guessed it, ‘Back to the Future’. With leprechaun zeal, officials reeled off ambitious long-term plans to invest billions of euros in roads, rail and waterworks: all with cross-party political support.

Compared to the Dutch display, Ed Miliband’s efforts to enthuse British business over his plans for a national infrastructure commission don’t seem so corny. You can’t feel enthusiastic about a government policy unless you feel it’s critically important in its own right, and Labour’s event at the Science Museum today seems to show that Miliband thinks it is – and it ought to make George Osborne up his game.

Both Labour and the Tories have talked for years about investing in infrastructure to grow the economy, but they have struggled to grasp an important truth about how to do so: it is not possible to plan for and deliver infrastructure in the short term.

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Roads, power stations and airports all take years to conceive, design and win approval, and they are only worthwhile if they address our long-term needs – needs that go way beyond the next parliament. Governments of both colours have been guilty of dodging this in the past. That is why we could face power shortages next year; why Crossrail is two decades late; and why we haven’t agreed on new airport capacity in the south-east. All this risks restraining growth.

The solution, as Sir John Armitt has said in his review for Labour, is not to take politicians out of decision-making, but to persuade them to make commitments that stretch far beyond the political horizon, and to do it consistently. Not just for one-off projects like High Speed 2 and those new nuclear power stations China wants to build us.

When the industry magazine Construction News challenged David Cameron on the Armitt plans earlier this year, his response was to say that the government already had a national infrastructure plan, thank you very much. The truth is not so simple, however. The ‘plan’ Cameron refers to is not a strategic plan at all: it is an inventory, a list of already announced construction projects cobbled together from both the public and the private sectors. In fact, most of the projects listed, such as water pipes and broadband, are being delivered by the private sector without government intervention. The idea that there is any central idea guiding these projects is nonsense.

The Armitt proposal would lead to an infrastructure commission delivering an assessment of the country’s infrastructure needs over the next 25-30 years, to be voted on by Parliament. At a stroke, it would introduce the long-term non-partisan planning that Canada, Spain and the Netherlands have enjoyed for years.

There are problems: such an assessment would need to clearly spell out the estimated costs of the new infrastructure over the long term, to avoid a PFI-style payments timebomb. The funding models would need to be affordable and politically palatable: an area where new nuclear, with its promise of higher electricity bills, is struggling. And the infrastructure industry builds schools and hospitals too, so to boost their confidence, the Armitt plans should include social infrastructure.

Still, this is an intelligent plan that ought to win the business vote – which is why Osborne should steal it without delay.

René Lavanchy is an infrastructure writer. He blogs at Infrastructure Punk


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Show comments
  • mariandavid

    Good idea – outsiders not British are clearly needed to create infrastructure since a cursory examination of the comments in illustrious sites such as the Telegraph and Observer demonstrate that something should only be built if:
    a – they themselves can use and it is therefore local only
    b – those building it must earn less than the commentator makes and therefore will require the import of endless Asians and Africans as navies.

  • Alexsandr

    I tend to the idea that the huge projects all go wrong and are too expensive. what is wrong with lots of smaller projects to increase capacity.
    a flyover on the railway here, a new junction there.
    (So in the midlands they are putting in a flying junction at Norton Bridge to add more west coast rail capacity, and a flyover in where the A45 and A46 cross near Coventry airport. Not huge schemes but delivering benefits in a couple of years.)

    • Conway

      If projects are viable, private firms will undertake them. The fact that nobody is queueing up to build HS2 speaks volumes.

  • Mynydd

    “Labour’s infrastructure plans are good enough for George Osborne to steal” with a slight modification, to be a member of the national infrastructure commission one must first donate £xxM to the conservative party, who in turn will turn a blind eye to massive profits.

  • Mark McIntyre

    NO2 HS2/3 – it be daylight robbery – whoever takes the ‘credit’ for it !

    • goatmince

      Liverpool will only take credit for messing up our World Cup experience – this much is certain.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        …and I see your goat sockpuppet is in here messing up this discussion topic, lad.

        But it’s always amusing when you pull off a trifecta of your sockpuppets in a discussion.

  • Alex

    “most of the projects listed, such as water pipes and broadband, are being delivered by the private sector without government intervention. The idea that there is any central idea guiding these projects is nonsense.”
    Excellent, so no top-down politically-motivated planning needed then.
    Of course the country does has one massive state-mandated taxpayer-subsidised infrastructure scheme going on. That is, of course, building huge numbers of offshore wind farms to provide electricity at four times the cost of every other energy source. So there’s a great example of what state infrastructure planning achieves.

    • Conway

      But that’s all because we’re going to be scorched – or is it drowned now? – by Global Warning Climate Change. I see that the latest wheeze is to explain the increase in polar ice by AGW Climate Change since the ice that was supposed to be disappearing is inconveniently thicker than ever.

  • swatnan

    We all remember the Dept of Economic Affairs which the tipsy George Brown (Belper) was in charge of coming up with 5 Year Plans which were unfortunately never implemented because all the circumstances were neverright. As if they would be. But its true, Britain has been drifting these past 40 years, ever since England won the World Cup, its been downhill all the way. Labour must set out its 5 Year Plan for 2015-2020.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Putting aside the scepticism from working on public sector IT projects for a decade or more, so comrade Ed is not content with the 10 years plans of his forbears, he wants 25 and 30 year plans. How greedy can one get?

    It may be an intelligent plan but it clearly takes no account of the idiocy of the political classes (who on earth believes this for one minute would remain non partisan?).

    In any case there is absolutely no point in doing this because we are subject to the pleasure of external foreign rule which has little or no interest in acting in this country’s interests. Any plans today could be trampled all over in 5, 10 or 15 years time by Brussels and there is nothing we could do about it. Until either Britain regains its sovereignty sufficiently to ensure no interference from Brussels or that Brussels takes direct control of such matters and agrees them then Miliband stooge’s whizzo wheeze is worthless.

    And should we permanently resolve our relationship with Brussels make sure there is an general election between this Commissions report and the implementation of it because if the British electorate get stiffed for an infrastructure plan they haven’t voted for then a political party or two might find themselves out of power for a generation or two.

    Remember our current public debt is off the back of the last bout of profligacy of a Labour Chancellor (throwing money at the NHS) in the noughties which we could not afford. Another bout of left wing profligacy (or the Tory parody of it) will likely leave the country bankrupt like Greece.

    Oh and by the way before you start throwing infrastructure up across the nation willy nilly someone might actually provide some sort of vision of what sort of country it is intended to facilitate? There’s no bloody point building roads to nowhere! Now given both Cameron and Miliband seem to have 20/200 political vision I won’t be holding my breath for the plan that needs to be developed before the infrastructure plan. Until we know what sort of future prosperity we are aiming for how can we develop a worthwhile infrastructure plan to facilitate it?

    • Colonel Mustard

      Google “Labour NHS PFI Scandal” and fill yer boots. How the magnitude of that privatisation scandal has been overshadowed by Labour whining about the last four years of Coalition NHS management is a mind boggling lesson in the power of collective socialist propaganda in Britain.

  • HookesLaw

    PFI time bomb?
    This is the point about infrastructure – it takes years to plan and then deliver and there is only so much money available at any one time. PFI brought forward the money to deliver the projects at once. So you either wait for years for the infrastructure or you get it sooner pocket the benefits and pay the running costs.

    We need infrastructure where the existing is out dated and or being strangled. ie HS2 or even widening the M1. But it does not fuel growth – it stops potential growth being strangled.

    But an infrastructure commission? Give me strength. Mr Lavancy’s lefty slip is showing.

    • René Lavanchy

      HookesLaw – my point about PFI is not that PFI was in itself a bad thing, but that insufficient attention was paid to whole life costs which, for some procuring bodies (i.e. NHS trusts) turned out to be unaffordable. The infrastructure commission’s plans therefore need to spell out the whole life costs more explicitly so there is no avoiding them. Only a commission can have the long-term vision and focus. Politicians and their departmental civil servants can’t.

    • Colonel Mustard

      The NHS can barely pay the running costs. That is the point. Whilst Labour chortle about how much they “invested” in the NHS infrastructure those “running costs” (servicing the debt) are crippling the shiny new hospitals and putting them at risk. Brown’s inventive book-keeping bought mortgages the residents would not be able to afford.

      The same will happen again as long as corporate vampirism calls the shots and silly boys “negotiate” the contracts.

      • Alexsandr

        a lot of these PFI hospitals are white elephants as care is moving from hospital to the community. The increasing elderly population dont want carting round the countryside to see a specialist, they want the specialist to come close to them. what will we do with all the shiny hospitals then?

        • Colonel Mustard

          Turn them into detention centres for islamophobes, climate change deniers and “change agenda” dissenters I should think.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      It’s always amusing when you, a pure big-government socialist, postures and calls another “lefty”.

      You are a progressive nutter, lad. You want to grow the government, spend massively and steal freedom and liberty. Take a look in the mirror, jack.

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    What business vote? Do businesses get a vote?

    If we take infrastructure out of party politics, is that not an opportunity for crony capitalism and big quango to get its hands on a pile of money that belongs to me and you, with no hazard? Why not go all the way and have a series of five-year plans?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …don’t say that too loud. Boy George will be stealing that, next.

    • Mynydd

      Be careful you don’t get burned by Mr Cameron’s bonfire of quangos

  • perdix

    The Nimbys wouldn’t permit such plans. In particular the Daily Wail, the Telegraph and ukip would protest that our green and pleasant land would be ruined (while they enjoy their nice pensions).

    • Airey Belvoir

      Most of our cities could do with a Baron Haussman.

      • perdix

        Haussman who ordered the wide boulevards in the regeneration of Paris so that cannon could be more readily used against the rioting citizens?

        • dalai guevara

          English cities do not have squares the size of Tiananmen or even Tahrir. We are scared sh**less as to what the plebs might get up to.

          That was no town planning joke, it’s the reality and everyone knows it is because every kid can see it with his own eyes.

          • Colonel Mustard

            Nonsense.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            Yes, you and Speer see eye-to-eye. So did Hitler.

            You all know what must be done.

    • Smithersjones2013

      When you have dim-witted Tories like yourself who are so thick that they do not realise that Miliband is effectively asking for a blank cheque for infrastructure and the opportunity to bind successor governments for a generation by stuffing yet another quango full of his stooges is it any wonder we despair of the Tory party?.

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Great commentary – vision is what is required and the opposing side always reaps the rewards. If that was an argument for doing nothing then all would be lost.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      I do get a kick out of you replying under multiple sockpuppets, in the same discussion.

      But it’d be better if you brought in the goat, lad.

      • BarkingAtTreehuggers

        Have you not had a wonk for weeks, laddie?
        Have one now, I hereby grant you permission.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …is that something you and the goat are into, lad?

  • starfish

    Just remember these ‘good ideas’ usually come from producer interests and their lobbyists
    Infrastructure planning needs to be totally independent and focussed on agreed strategic aims

    • dalai guevara

      Absolutely right – and now tell us who evaluates that interest on a communal/city level in Britain?
      In Berlin or Vienna they have what is commonly known as a “Stadtbaudirektor” – the job title cannot even be translated into English, because we cannot think it.
      Hans Stimmann transformed Berlin almost single-handedly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The workload was huge, ‘a plan’ existed. No piecemeal tampering as we are used to here – a vision was developed and then implemented. The results are on a plate for everyone to evaluate today.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        No need for all that nonsense, you fascists know exactly what we should do… or else. No need to discuss or talk about it, but perhaps need to build infrastructure for the camps, which you’ll surely be bringing on eventually.

        By the way, how’s your Leveson free speech destruction coming along, lad? Are you and your below sockpuppet barking at that, too?

        • Inverted Meniscus

          Probably just the Goat.

        • HookesLaw

          Lets be clear – its you thats the fascist in the jackboots.

          • Colonel Mustard

            Falscher feind wieder, Herr Hakengesetz!

          • Smithersjones2013

            Tut tut tut. How many times have you been told not to indulge your boot fetish in public?

          • the viceroy’s gin

            …another Levesonista fascist heard from.

            You fascists always stick together, don’t you, lad?

          • saffrin

            But Hookey, it was your lot that bombed Libya and Mali.
            Syria too if Putin hadn’t stopped you.

      • Colonel Mustard

        ‘City construction director’ (zzzzzz) although I’ve the fancier ‘director of urban planning’ (zzzz) seen. There probably arcane teutonic inferences are.

        Although things changing as a result of the alien concept of leading beyond authority and city mayors are, the Britisch tend not for fuhrers in the Speer mould to go in.

        • dalai guevara

          Yes, again I knew we would get there …
          Albert Speer jr., my dear old sport, is one of the best master/regional/urban/town planners out there today. Not that you would have any clue. Why he and his practice are not on the Wolfson Garden City shortlist is beyond anyone, but perhaps not you.

          http://www.as-p.de/

          • Colonel Mustard

            Ach so, der Apfel fällt nicht weit vom Stamm.

            • dalai guevara

              There we have it – the above cannot be translated literally either. So you get the idea. Sportsfreund.

              • Colonel Mustard

                Sie nicht, es zu glauben! The apple does not from the tree fall far, Bulmer…

        • Inverted Meniscus

          I think this nutter is an EU sponsored disrupter Colonel.

          • dalai guevara

            (zzzz)
            I can’t help it but believe that you actually never received any decent schooling, ever.

            • Inverted Meniscus

              Well none of your army of gibberish spouting socialist nutter sock puppets attended my school lad. With your inability to master basic English you would not have lasted long. We would have to found some Lego for you and the goat, dado, you kid etc etc to play with.

              • dalai guevara

                Lego! And you imported that where from?
                Stick with marbles lad – stick with what you know.

          • Colonel Mustard

            Yes, I gathered that. There are at least three of them in the same disruption cell who use exactly the same ‘Euro style’ (© Lamberts).

            • Inverted Meniscus

              I have counted five dado trunking, you kid, barking, Dalai and lest we forget, the Goat.

              • Colonel Mustard

                Ah yes, I had forgotten the Gibberish Kid and Goat Boy!

      • Airey Belvoir

        Some credit must go to the RAF and USAAF.

      • HookesLaw

        The North East had a “Stadtbaudirektor”- his name was Poulson. Or was it T Dan Smith? Anyway they got things done.

        In reality it only means Director of Town Planning. Thats nothing unusual.

        • dalai guevara

          1- 😉
          2- that would be a literal translation, not comparable to the powers and/or expertise held – simply because in the UK there is no such thing as a “Bebauungsplan”. We do not plan things here, we make them up as we go along.

          • Colonel Mustard

            “We”, “here”? Come now!

            • dalai guevara

              Alstublieft, Colonel.

              • Colonel Mustard

                جميع الرجال أخوة

        • Conway

          Hmm, I’d forgotten about them – hardly shining examples of selfless public service, if I recall.

    • ScaryBiscuits

      There’s no such thing as ‘independent’.

      • HookesLaw

        An infrastructure commission would be in the hands of ‘planners’ and we can see the damage they have done with our own eyes every waking moment.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          …and you Camerluvvies and your HS2 disasters are right with them, laddie, littering the countryside and bankrupting the country. It’s what you socialists do.

    • In2minds

      The DeLorean sports car was such an all around failure I cannot imagine why the Dutch civil servants were so gleeful, perhaps they are stupid? I also see the public are not consulted on these projects, they just pay for them. Not good enough.

      • saffrin

        Nigel Farage said on the telly we’d get a referendum on stuff like this.
        HS2, new towns, big projects.

  • Colin

    Ideas so good, they couldn’t be bothered implementing them during their thirteen years in power!

    • George_Arseborne

      I thought Labour Party is a blank sheet policy party. I never knew they have ideas such that the Tories are urged to steal them. Well done Ed Milliband. Proof your media haters critics wrong.
      I am very much convince that Ed Milliband’s resilience to criticism and his steady handling of unity in his Party will make him one of the best Prime minister of the United Kingdom.
      Unlike David Cameron who always have knee jerk reaction to criticisms and always take wrong decision for the nation. Always dancing to the tune of his backbenchers and UKIP.

      • Smithersjones2013

        No it seems they’ve changed from the ‘blank sheet’ party to the ‘blank cheque’ party

        • Mynydd

          Yet again you have got it wrong. Mr Cameron’s Conservative party has seen the cost of HS2 increase daily and will continue to pay for it with a blank cheque. On the other hand Mr Miliband’s Labour party have said there will be no HS2 blank cheque.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            …and you believe what a politician says?

          • Alexsandr

            millibands party needs taking to account for the useless aircraft carriers with no planes. what a waste of our money.
            There again cameron should have cancelled them as soon as he got in.

            • Conway

              Gordon “I saved the world” Brown tied up the contracts so tightly with penalty clauses that it would have cost more to cancel than to build! We have to protect the Scottish Labour vote with largely English largesse, after all.

      • Conway

        I see Ed has said we don’t need a referendum on the EU as he thinks we should be in. That should endear him to lots of working class voters who can’t get jobs because of competition from abroad.

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