Infra Digging

Public opinion remains divided over the wisdom of bombing Syria.  Much less so than the House of Commons, which this week allowed the red mist of ‘hitting evil hard’ to out-vote reasonable doubts over what military action can achieve without a lasting political solution in sight.  Who benefits, besides the suppliers of Brimstone missiles at £183,000 apiece and those who eventually win the contracts to rebuild a country’s shattered infrastructure?

There’s something quaintly 20th century about the UK joining the aerial posse over Syria when the evidence is that the Paris attacks were planned from within Europe.  And funded from where?  It could be anywhere.  Which means that foreign policy alone cannot guarantee home security.  BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday broadcast a documentary on the threats posed by growing reliance on the Internet.  With hackers becoming ever more sophisticated, cyber war is joining nuclear war in the thinking of those whose job it is to predict and avoid catastrophes.  Hackers who gain even temporary control of a national power grid could do real damage by overloading critical equipment that can take two years or more to repair.  And where there is chaos there are casualties too.
Austerity and resilience make bad bedfellows.  Cost pressures are driving the transition to ‘digital-by-default’.  But digital-by-default is a fair weather system.  Rip out the back-up, rely on microwave signals, not copper wire, computer programs, not manual valves and paper manuals.  Then cope with a real crisis.  It’s not just about the back-up technology.  It’s about retaining the skills you need to operate it.  From the floods of 2014 to Fukushima, it’s still knowing what levers to pull when the screens go dark that makes all the difference.
Britain has a great deal of ageing infrastructure.  There’s a real drive on right now to upgrade it.  But it’s not just about running to stand still.  UK population is still rocketing, while the increasing frequency of extreme weather events means that previous standards of protection simply aren’t good enough.  So far, not so good.  The UK, the world’s fifth largest economy, was this year ranked 27th by the World Economic Forum when it comes to delivering quality infrastructure.  So critical is this problem that governments stripped bare by privatisation are turning to global investors to fund it, even ones about whom there are entirely reasonable security concerns.  That’s a measure of how far governments of all parties have abandoned their primary responsibility to uphold our way of life.  The investment being sought is competing for cash with other parts of Europe.  Is there scope for better co-ordination?  Much of the continent thinks so and while the UK is agonising over Brexit, they’re pushing ahead.
Let’s assume that the UK gets the investment it wants.  Now, who gets that investment next?  Where does the Middle Eastern and East Asian capital all end up?  What are the new national priorities?  The Conservatives have set up the National Infrastructure Commission, headed by ex-Labour man Andrew Adonis, to answer those questions.  We can be sure of two things.
One is that London will receive vastly more than its fair share.  We’ve shown before the extent to which this happens.  The reason it happens is that the nations and regions outside London fail to elect sufficient nationalist and regionalist MPs to stop it.  It’s that simple.  Any provincial representative of the London parties can be easily bullied into voting more cash for the capital.  Because we all benefit from London’s prosperity, don’t we?  Because the ‘experts’ tell us it’s the best possible value for money, don’t they?  Because we’re all in it together, aren’t we?  As long as it’s public spending, Labour can’t think of a single reason to fault it.
The other certainty is that any regional dimension will be skewed in London’s favour.  This is a well-established principle seen in other centralised European countries.  In France, spending on motorways and high-speed railways has been designed to reinforce the Parisian view of France, linking cities deemed to be within the same official region, while ignoring links across those boundaries.  Brittany’s historic capital, Nantes is tied more tightly to other cities within the artificial ‘Loire Country’ region than it is to the rest of historic Brittany.  Rennes, capital of the administrative region of Brittany, has better links to Paris than it does to Nantes.  (Those who understand French can read more in a book called Bretagne et Grand Ouest by Pierre-Yves Le Rhun.)
Within the confines of still-inadequate devolution, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all developed national plans with a significant infrastructure component.  With devolution bedded-in, each has now reached at least its third round of plan-making.  England has no equivalent, national or regional, though the UK Government has what it calls a National Infrastructure Plan, in fact just a list of big projects taken out of context.  Powerful interests insist that only local clubs of councils, in theory equal partners in city ‘deals’ with the London regime but in practice wholly under its thumb, can plug the gap.  This is plain wrong, for three reasons.
Firstly, because its approach to place is wrong.  The emphasis on functional economic areas, the cities-first agenda of combined authorities and metro mayors, flies on the rhetoric of globalisation and the irrelevance of broad territory.  Equally though, it flies in the face of the fact that cities are not islands but depend for much of their life-support on those broad territories that the anti-regionalist consensus would like to ignore.  The places where you’ll find the water-gathering grounds, the power stations and the landfill sites.  Mayors-for-all is a timid retreat from real devolution, failing to provide joined-up government at the regional scale, the scale at which meaningful links can be made between the major infrastructure providers.  Highways England plan roads.  Network Rail plan railways.  So who’s planning transport?  No-one knows how much wealth is wasted by the silo mentality prevalent among the utilities.  These are companies set up to milk public services for private profit.  Poorly equipped regulators make matters worse because their remit is protecting the consumer from exploitation by natural monopolies.  It isn’t the wider public interest, so utilities are, for example, prevented from funding investment ahead of demand (but are allowed to use their own, unco-ordinated projections of what it will be).  Different aspects of a single scheme – like the new reservoir at Cheddar – get split between different control periods and held up accordingly.  None of this would be necessary if powerful regional assemblies ran the public utilities and decided their own priorities.
Secondly, because its approach to time is wrong.  There is much more to survival than economics, and getting cities fit to compete in a global economic system heavily dependent on oil.  In building sustainable regions it’s paramount that we build for the future, for how the world will be and not for how it is.  That means a process of infrastructure planning driven by long-term political campaigning, not short-term economic speculation.  It means building (or rebuilding) things like north-south rail links in Wales and Wessex, or improving those that run east-west across the Pennines.  These are schemes that struggle to pass any conventional cost-benefit test because that conventional analysis is weighted so as to reinforce the status quo.  One reason why such a huge amount of transport funding goes to London is that savings in travel time count as economic benefits of a scheme that can then be quantified in terms of the travellers’ incomes.  The more highly-paid the travellers, the greater the benefit assumed.  As taxpayers, we fund things like the London weighting allowance that drive up those incomes, and this in turn helps attract more public spending.  Low-wage areas are starved of transport investment because workers’ time is not valuable enough to tip the cost-benefit scales in their favour.  Decision-making needs to pay less attention to the biased outputs of computer modelling and get assertively political instead.
Finally, because its approach to people is wrong.  The devolution ‘deals’ are characterised by next-to-no public involvement.  The various closed-door Leaders’ Boards, Enterprise Partnerships and what-have-you that come and go exist in the legal shadows, inspiring no confidence either in their own permanence as entities of local governance or in the stability of the strategies they devise.  That’s no way to attract long-term investment or to act as the credible equal of the UK State.  And accountability?  The best you’ll get is to vote once every four years for a mayor you never asked to have.  The result is likely to be very low turnouts that undermine any claim to political legitimacy for the new single voice of the area.  It’s sad but true that the only reason to vote at all will be to keep out the candidate most likely to ignore the public and abuse the power to spend your money on his or her personal preferences.
With investment decisions now being planned that will shape our society for the next 30 to 50 years, strong regional voices are more important than ever.  We should remember that the regional dimension in England is closely related to questions of resilience.  In both world wars, regional structures were central to civil defence (and in between for organising the Government response to the 1926 General Strike).  The regions in use today – the boring zones still being touted as the only possible basis for elected assemblies – trace their administrative roots to the areas for which Regional Commissioners were appointed in 1939.  In the event of invasion, with London captured or destroyed, these men would have assumed all civil powers within their regions.  In Wessex, those men were, in the west, General Sir Hugh Elles, briefly replaced by Sir Geoffrey Peto, and in the east Harold Butler, later replaced by Sir Harry Haig.  Familiar names, no doubt, to those who needed to know.  An article in The Political Quarterly in 1941 commented that: “At last we have established regionalism, after much discussion and excessive delay.  But the experiment in regional government represented by the Regional Commissioners is utterly different from the kind of institution which was the subject of so much advocacy and controversy during the past three or four decades.”  It wasn’t the last time that principled regionalists would be disappointed by chronic imagination-failure in the corridors of power.
So it’s no surprise to see renewed calls for regions to take the lead in identifying their infrastructure needs.  In our previous post, we referred to Surveyor magazine’s coverage of local devolution.  Plans are already in place to develop Transport for the North into a statutory body by 2017.  The Midlands Connect Partnership is developing similar ambitions.  Andrew Pritchard of East Midlands Councils told Surveyorthat the Government’s agenda is “having an impact on the way we do things.  We recognise if we are to compete for funding we have to take a more collaborative approach.”  This need not be limited to transport: Martin Tugwell of the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transport told the magazine that he welcomed the move to regional transport planning and said it should also extend to other infrastructure such as digital, energy supply and distribution and water networks.  Flood risk and waste management might be thought useful additions to that list.
With sufficiently determined regional leadership, this is an agenda that can be wrested out of the hands of the London regime.  If not, we shall see more London-oriented investment, packaged as ‘helping’ the regions plug in to what they need while in fact adding to what has colourfully been called London’s ‘vampiric suction’.  It can be done.  We just need a new set of MPs: they’re the obsolete infrastructure we really need to replace.

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