Transport infrastructure investment and national economic priorities

Posted on May 1, 2020

I’m not sure that when Boris Johnson claimed during the Tory leadership contest last year that making model buses and putting happy people in them, was the way he relaxed, that he anticipated this would become a metaphor for his infrastructure policies once Prime Minister. But with the subjects of connectivity and ‘levelling up’ suddenly becoming the political topics du jour since the election, at least until the COVID19 crisis hit, buses and transport, particularly expensive infrastructure projects seem to be the answer to so many questions.

Labour leadership hopeful Lisa Nandy has been staking out a distinctive pitch around the need for excellent bus networks to re-connects towns to the economic life-blood of the nation, and hostility to the HS2 project has come from the swathe of so-called ‘red wall’ Tories i.e. those elected in 2019 in what were seen as previously impregnable Labour seats mainly in northern England.   Buses, or more precisely free public transport more generally, were part of the Labour manifesto offer too as part of the Green New Deal. But it is Johnson’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan who has had the greatest impact on this debate. The Government announced in February that following the recommendations of the Oakervee Report (1) that HS2, the high speed rail line between London and Birmingham would definitely proceed, and that there was a commitment to extend it to Manchester and Leeds too, there was  deal to buy off the red wall Tory MP’s and blunt the arguments of people like Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham and Wigan MP Lisa Nandy,  that the HS2 expenditure would ‘crowd out’ any other public transport investment, especially in the north of England and outside cities. So £5bn was found for bus investment with the promise of a national bus strategy later this year. Johnson in his speech announcing this new investment painted a glorious vision where: ‘high speed trains glide between our great cities. Where electric buses convey cleanly around our towns. Where self-driving cars roam roam along roads that are free of the congestion that causes so much pollution. And where a new generation of cyclists pedal safely and happily to school and work in tree- dappled sunlight on their own network of fully segregated cycle paths.’ (2) Am I alone in thinking the tone was a little tongue in cheek? The fact that the funding only allows for 50 miles of segregated cycleway to be constructed in the whole of the UK per year, suggests not.

The problem though is not just the funding. It is about who decides the priorities and how if at all these mesh into any kind of national economic strategy. Prime Minister Johnson may have appointed a ‘Minister for HS2’, Pendle MP Andrew Stephenson,  with further responsibilities for rail integration across the north of England, branded collectively as ‘High Speed North’, but regional regeneration for areas hard hit  by deindustrialisation will hardly be reversed by Boris buses and a high speed rail link to London in 2040. The Government’s economic plan appears to be uncoordinated, way over-centralised  and with little or no involvement by local government, a tier of government having been stripped of most of its powers in the 1980’s and then of its resources under George Osborne’s austerity measures over the past decade.

Much has been made of the idea that post-Brexit Britain will become a kind of Singapore-on-Thames, threatening the economic power of the EU as a low-tax high-finance alternative right on its doorstep. But Kent University politics professor Adrian Pabst argues that the current Government is pursuing  a programme ‘more akin to Taiwan-on-Trent; an activist entrepreneurial state that supports technology-intensive industries and relies on exporting services to compete in the global economy.’ (3)  This chimes with Johnson’s self-description as a ‘Brexity Hezza’. But such a strategy exacerbates the economic insecurity facing many communities. Free trade deals and a top-down interventionist state will continue to concentrate wealth and power, and not in the north of England. The signals so far are not promising with the surprise resignation in February of Chancellor Sajid Javid over exactly such centralisation. If the ‘red wall’, and communities in northern England generally, are going to feel valued, the ability of local government to spend on local priorities, like which bus routes, is paramount; UK local government has less than half the proportion of public sector spend that its counterparts in France or Germany have at their disposal.

But the interventionist state inevitably comes with a price tag, so the signals seem to be that in one respect the orthodoxies of the past decade will  be decisively overturned. Prior to the onset of COVID19 which of course may change everything, on current trends Government spending could be up around 40% of GDP by the end of the Parliament and above £1tn by 2023-24, for the first time in history. This is a far cry from the days when the mantra that the percentage of public spending as a proportion of GDP should never exceed 37%.  But as the confusion over small state versus interventionist state, played out in transport infrastructure investment priorities demonstrate, it may be a case of you wait for ages and three buses come along at once, but are they going in the right direction?

This article was first published in the April/May 2020 edition of Town & Country Planning.

(1)    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/oakervee-review-of-hs2

(2)    PM stakes reputation on HS2 to create new spine for UK transport. Guardian 12 February 2020

(3)    https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/02/power-without-purpose-how-tories-don-t-have-national-plan

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