Post-Brexit, politicians must convince the public the UK is still open for business, and infrastructure could be key to doing this...
When someone mentions politics and infrastructure in the same breath, it’s hard to suppress a groan. The history of UK infrastructure and politics shows that they don’t really mix. One is working on a horizon of 40 or 50 years while the other is working on the two, three or four until the next election – the result tending to be chronic indecision or parking of controversial decisions.
We’ve recognised that in the past when we’ve explicitly looked to remove politicians from decision-making – see the last Labour government’s National Infrastructure Commission and, more recently, the South East Airport Commission. But ultimately, when all the assessments and modelling are done, it will be a politician that has to sign-off and that’s where the difficulties begin.
Could that be about to change? For politicians, approving infrastructure is about telling a story. A scheme might deliver 2,000, 3,000 or 5,000 jobs but probably not in the lifetime of that administration: sign-off HS2, for example, and the first trains are over a decade away; agree Heathrow’s expansion and spades in the ground will be years hence.
The benefit for politicians is in the signal it sends about them and the country. HS2 wasn’t just about fast trains or extra capacity on a stressed network – it was variously about bridging the North-South divide, about creating a northern powerhouse, about modern engineering ambition in the spirit of Brunel and Stephenson, about connecting northern cities... but, ultimately, it was about showing the Conservative party wasn’t just a party of the South.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
New Prime Minister Theresa May is in desperate need of some storytelling. Her administration is faced with a post-referendum situation where she needs to inspire confidence and certainty in the UK economy, and where foreign direct investment and domestic business investment needs to be reassured. With so much in the air and likely to be for some time (Article 50, interim and long-term European Union trade deals, bilateral trade, World Trade Organisation membership and so on) she will need to pull all the levers she has at her disposal in the short-term. One of these is undoubtedly infrastructure decision-making.
A case in point is London City Airport. Its plans for expansion of facilities and taxiways to enable more volume and bigger planes were submitted in 2013. In 2015 the local council approved it, but the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson, intervened and directed that it be refused. The new mayor, Sadiq Khan, signalled that he wouldn’t share this position and within two weeks of the new Transport Secretary being in place, it was signed off.
In London you get a sense that connectivity and growth is taken for granted. London is a ‘world city’, it likes to think it’s the centre of the financial universe, house prices only ever go up, the skyline is always full of cranes... but that’s a view that is likely to be challenged in the coming years.
We may be about to enter a period where we no longer view a globally significant hub airport as a noisy carbuncle on the capital to be endured but as a critical piece of infrastructure, vital to growth, that needs to be cultivated.
Perhaps politics and infrastructure do mix after all. There are Brexiteers in the shape of Grayling, Patel, Fox and Davis in the Cabinet who desperately want a post-EU United Kingdom to succeed, and telling a story, through infrastructure, that the UK is open for business might just be part of that.