In Context - Transport boost will take time

When China got hit by the global economic crisis four years ago, its answer was straight out of the economics textbook: boost Keynesian counter-cyclical infrastructure spending.

Sir Peter Hall: "Don't expect that most such schemes will be shovel-ready by 2015".
Sir Peter Hall: "Don't expect that most such schemes will be shovel-ready by 2015".

So it promptly built 8,000 miles of high-speed railway, only pausing briefly for reflection when two trains crashed and the minister responsible was fired for corruption. Beijing isn't bothered by the Sino-equivalent of Disgusted of Little Missenden.

But here, transport secretary Justine Greening has postponed a decision on our 110-mile High Speed 2 scheme until January while she tries to work out how to bury one mile of the proposed line in a tunnel under the Chilterns to try to pacify local opposition.

Meanwhile, we have George Osborne's new national infrastructure plan. Based on a commendable review of our performance against our European neighbours - often unfavourable - it lists more than 500 projects and programmes worth over £250 billion that it wants to see developed. They're a Christmas party combination of old friends and new acquaintances: transport schemes long stuck in the pipeline, such as an improved M1-M6-A14 junction in Leicestershire, plus a few that have jumped up, like a new Lower Thames Crossing, the east-west rail link from Bedford to Oxford and a new road from Manchester Airport east to the A6. There's a rather heavy emphasis on schemes connecting to ports and airports, recalling the Thatcher government's Roads for Prosperity white paper long ago.

The novelty comes in the funding: almost two-thirds of the planned investment, from now to 2015, is due to be privately funded. Osborne wants pension funds to chip in no less than £20 billion. He's looking at new ways of financing schemes such as improvements to the A14 north of Cambridge, which was dropped only a year ago for lack of public funds. He wants to give councils the freedom to use new wheezes, like borrowing against future Community Infrastructure Levy receipts. And, where necessary, he proposes offering government guarantees to specific high-risk projects such as the Thames Tideway tunnel sewer system.

Great, but - see this column, 2 December - it will take time. Don't expect that most such schemes will be shovel(or bulldozer-) ready by 2015, aka the next general election. So they're unlikely to lift the deep gloom that will by then have enveloped the electorate. It's all so much easier in China.

Sir Peter Hall is Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration, University College London.

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