We need to talk about infrastructure

MW
27 Aug 2023

The recent decision by the official watchdog, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, to rate the HS2 (high-speed rail link) as “unachievable” should worry us. It worries me, and I was not a supporter of the project; it should worry you if you were a supporter. It speaks to Britain having a lack of seriousness about the country’s infrastructure.

Once-upon-a-time Britain led the world in building infrastructure. Indeed, it can largely be said to have driven the industrial revolution. In 1814 Stephenson built his first locomotive. At the beginning of the 1840s railways were few and scattered, but by the end of that decade the majority of towns and cities, and many villages, had a rail connection. It is estimated that in that 10-year period over 7,500 miles of railway was built. Compare that with HS2. HS2 was proposed in 2009, finally approved in 2017, was planned to provide just under 400 miles of track, and even in its reduced form (c. 210 miles) will not be completed until 2035. Setting to one-side the pros and cons of the project, 210 miles in 26 years is not impressive! Now there is talk of cutting the project back even further.

There are other infrastructure projects which suggest the country has lost sight of what underpins an economy.

Since the water companies were privatised in 1989 only 8 new reservoirs have been added to the then existing 100 (8%). But in that time the UK population has grown by 10 million (16%) and the demands on water supply from farming and business increased.

The water companies are also failing to invest in sufficient sewage processing. This has obvious, and deleterious, effects in terms of sewage dumping in our rivers and on our beaches. It has other impacts as well. Water companies are happy to take the ‘connection fee’ to link up new housing estates but they are building scant new capacity to process the waste they generate. At a certain point this will act as a brake on new property development.

What of the new ‘green economy’ technologies? On-shore wind turbines (if they are allowed) and solar farms all must be connected to the National Grid. As also must new housing. There is evidence though that insufficient electricity sub-stations are being built. As with reservoirs and sewage treatment at some point this will limit the adoption of cleaner energy supplies and the building of homes for people.

What of the objective of phasing out the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030? Even if the Conservatives back-track on this promise it seems likely that electric-vehicles will make up a significantly larger portion of our transport provision. Where though are the charging points to allow them to be ‘refuelled’? The evidence is we are not installing enough of them. Another infrastructure failure.

Finally, as all of us living in central-Devon know, ‘potholes’ and the state of our roads are a scandal. They may seem like a small, trivial problem, but they are indicative of a lack of commitment to getting to grip with renewing and revitalising the country’s economic backbone.

Of course, it is often the case that there is significant opposition to infrastructure projects, HS2 and the 3rd Runway at Heathrow both obvious examples. We need, however, to get to grips with some of these difficult decisions if our economy is not to decline.

We need a serious approach to infrastructure. The Conservatives at least recognise that spending on infrastructure creates short term employment gains, but more importantly it creates long term economic growth.

The more our infrastructure declines the clearer the statement we make that we are no longer serious about economic growth. Sadly, I fear we do not have a government that is serious. Whilst it obsesses with tax cuts, and cuts to expenditure, our local roads and the country’s infrastructure will get worse and worse. As a result, so will our economy.

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