TALKING POINT: ON ITS WAY – A SPENDING BOOM LIKE NO OTHER

For seven years we’ve been bombarded by “austerity economics” – slashed budgets, cancelled projects, penny pinching on a vast scale.

Big projects have been mothballed as the government has wrestled with debt and deficit reduction.

It has added to the picture of a fractured, fragmenting Britain, sliding down the global ladder.

But might the opposite be true?

That we are standing on the threshold of a regeneration of our infrastructure running into hundreds of billions of pounds and the biggest upgrade to our power, roads and railways since the Victorian era?

Add up all the scattered, disjointed bits of news about road projects, rail upgrades, nuclear plant refurbishment, flood mitigation and plans to transform transport connectivity and it comes to a massive sum.

More than 1,300 miles of road will be laid through the major cities of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.

More than £15 billion in total has already been committed.

In Scotland there’s the new £1.4 billion Forth road crossing now well underway.

All told, Scotland’s five largest transport projects will total more than £7.5 billion over the next three decades.

Elsewhere the go-ahead has been given for the two biggest nuclear projects in Europe.

Just as with the transformation of our roads, the contracts have already been signed. The work IS going ahead – the £24.5 billion project at Hinkley Point C in Somerset and the new Moorside plant in Cumbria, signed in December last year and due to come on line in 2024.

It will create up to 21,000 jobs and generate enough power for 6 million homes.

Once these power plants are both operational, they’ll supply 14% of our electricity, providing cheaper energy for decades.

The Crossrail project is pushing ahead – and even if the High Speed Rail proposals are abandoned, it’s likely that other rail upgrading and uplift will be approved.

Investment writer David Stevenson has itemised this and similar projects, hailing all this as an infrastructure boom without parallel in modern times.

Might it be that we are indeed on the brink of a capital spending boom?

Last year chancellor George Osborne gave his backing to the creation of a “northern cities powerhouse”.

The plans of economist Jim O’Neill are gaining traction. His vision to revive the great English cities with infrastructure investment has inspired hope and catalysed cross-party sympathy.

The cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle believe their proposals for investment in road capacity, a new high-speed rail link across the Pennines and better access to Manchester airport – a £15 billion programme over 15 years – would create a “connected region” powerhouse that would challenge London.

Manchester itself has been galvanised by Sir Richard Leese, leader of the city council and the city’s chief executive Howard Bernstein.

Their efforts were lauded in a major Financial Times article last weekend.

All this not before time, you may think.

London and the southeast have received the lion’s share of infrastructure spending in past decades. According to KPMG, the capital spends as much on infrastructure every two days as Manchester does in a year. There is now wide cross-party recognition that this imbalance must be addressed – and reversed.

Major gains could be in prospect. But if he has lit a spark for northern English cities, what of a similar ignition here? Should Holyrood not invite him to revive those similar aspirations we had for a central belt powerhouse?

News of a £250 million contract to electrify and improve the track of the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line is encouraging. But it has been long in coming and falls well short of the high-speed link required.

Years ago there was talk of Glasgow-Edinburgh collaboration and the huge benefits it promised. It all fizzled out. But now Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy is talking of a revival.

It is time, surely, to look afresh at what could be achieved and move on and up from exclusive focus on constitutional politics. It drains policy attention from the other purposes of government and in particular long-term economic improvement.

Why does this infrastructure uplift matter?

As the world around us changes, this could cost dearly.  If the northern cities get their act together, Scotland could be a big loser.

If we simply focus on higher government spending on vote-catching welfare and benefit giveaways we risk side-lining projects that could make a marked and evident contribution to our prosperity and well-being.

Worse still, we will lose sight of the potential for the biggest regeneration uplift for a hundred years – one that’s already underway.

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