You can’t take the politics out of infrastructure planning

Senior reporter

A new report proposes letting engineers do the strategic thinking around our infrastructure needs but short-termist politicians will always have the final say.

Listen to the naysayers and you’d believe Britain’s infrastructure is a crumbling wreck: a Victorian rail network bursting at the seams, a pothole-covered and congested road system and an energy grid in danger of letting the lights go off.

The reality is nowhere near as bad and numerous programmes are improving things. In the last few years we’ve seen the West Coast Main Line upgraded, the introduction of (some) eight-lane and managed motorways, the building of a fifth terminal at Heathrow (the world’s third busiest airport) and the launch of the 4G mobile network. Crossrail, the new Forth bridge, and a surge in wind farm building are all underway and a new generation of nuclear power plants have been given the go-ahead.

But as the beleaguered plans for High Speed Two and the continued procrastination over airport capacity demonstrate, Britain still has a problem when it comes to infrastructure. We are a crowded island of NIMBYs that suffers a lack of long-term strategic thinking and a reluctance to invest in future capabilities.

Our political system rarely has the cash or the will for national building programmes and the private sector seems ever reluctant to take on the necessary risks or high costs. And for all the positives, there remains much about our transport, energy and communication systems that desperately needs upgrading.

So Sir John Armitt, who headed up delivery of our most successful recent infrastructure project – the Olympics – has put forward a plan to break the deadlock. In a review commissioned by the Labour Party, he has proposed the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission that would make recommendations based on a 30-year assessment of Britain’s needs.

These would be put before Parliament within six months and, if approved, turned into detailed plans by the government ready for another round of legislative endorsement one year later. The Commission would be held in such high regard, the argument goes, that politicians would need to present pretty solid reasons to reject the proposals.

There’s something attractive about the idea of taking politicians out of the process of setting strategic objectives, in theory. Employing a technocratic body to look objectively at our needs and propose solutions free of lobbyists or ideology sounds like a way of finally getting on with things.

Like the Victorians. The Victorians didn’t squabble or cave in to special interest groups. They just got on and built things, things that we’re still using today: the railways, the sewers, the first national telegraph network.

Or so people like to say. The truth is the Victorians worked with even less strategic planning than we do. The railways were built piecemeal by private entrepreneurs not subject to true democratic regulation, through speculative investment that led to many people losing their life savings and left us with a complicated network of overlapping lines.

Real strategic planning requires coordinated central government action of the kind that was unthinkable to the laissez-faire Victorians. The electricity grid, the gas grid, the motorways, nuclear power stations, the fibre-optic network: all these came about because of government planning and many of them during the era of nationalised industry.

The UK has changed dramatically since the creation of all this national infrastructure. There are far more people to disrupt with large building programmes than the Victorians had to deal with, and investors are much more cautious of such proposals. Post Thatcher and Blair, there is little political will to return the post-war consensus of big government and big projects, HS2 perhaps being the exception. And our political and economic leaders today arguably operate under greater scrutiny and transparency than any of their forebears.

However wonderful it would be to have a commission of experts do the long-term thinking, the elected politicians who ultimately take the decisions (and rightly so) still have to deal with budgets and constituents. A supposedly independent body might put forward a grand plan but if the mood of the country is against it or the coffers are (at least thought to be) empty then its recommendations will be brushed aside like so many before them.

Perhaps I’m being overly cynical to suggest that government won’t stick to deadlines, push through technically sensible but unpopular projects or back up its decisions with real evidence as opposed to cherry-picked data. That you can never really take the politics out of decision making in a democracy. In which case I challenge the politicians to prove me wrong.