What the state is for

22 06 2009

News that the Tories are planning to scrap a new government body aimed at fast-tracking planning decisions, such as for airports or roads, should be met with qualified approval. The creation of this body, The Infrastructure Planning Commission, by Labour was an attempt to bypass the need to politically convince people that large infrastructure projects are necessary.

As Frank Furedi argues, the state in the UK is failing to fulfil many of its key functions, the creation of a modern infrastructure being one of them. There are many things that are socially and economically necessary which private capital cannot or will not do. The creation of large scale infrastructure projects involves levels of investment, planning  and coordination which necessitate the involvement of and leadership by the state.

The dependence of the UK economy over the past ten years on financial services , which require little more than offices and telephones in order to function,  has allowed growth to take place without  basic infrastructure upgrades. The probable decline of financial services as a driver for the UK economy makes the infrastructure issue even more vital.

New Labour, despite having increased public spending in almost every area of the economy, has conspicuously failed to modernise the basic infrastructure of the UK.  Dieter Helm recently listed the main areas which require attention,

Major upgrades are needed to the electricity and gas networks, smart meters, high-speed trains, upgrading the London Underground, Crossrail, new runways, new water resources and sewerage systems, and broadband roll-out, …new power stations, energy efficiency and renewables

Many of these projects are controversial and politically sensitive, nuclear power probably being top of the list.

Rather than confront directly those who cannot see the big picture requirement for investment in infrastructure New Labour has resorted to inquiries and bureaucratic means of pushing things through. It has often abdicated the need for government leadership by handing the decision making process over to third parties in an attempt to seem neutral and objective.

There are many aspects of life that the state should not involve itself in, (see the comments on this blog for some good examples), but it has a major responsibility for keeping the traffic running and the lights on.

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5 responses

22 06 2009
Rob Clowes

The Infrastructure Planning Commission looks like an attempt to recognise that the present planning system can’t really deal with the big infrastructure replacement and extension and is rather set up to stop it being built (James Heartfield’s book Let’s Build http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lets-Build-Million-Homes-Years/dp/0955383005/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245668303&sr=8-7 was rather excellent on all this). The parochial nature of the present planning system conspires to stop major infrastructure being built or makes them glacially slow in coming.

Getting rid of the IPS without doing something about the existing planning system is a license to stop possible infrastructure development in its tracks. It seems like a sop from the Tories to middle England to allow controversial infrastructure projects to devolve to a local level where Nimby policies will tend to dominate to block them. I can’t see how this is itself about anything other than avoiding debating the hard questions and further evacuating the content of a forthcoming election set to be dominated by evasions over corruption scandals.

The Tories (and Labour) should – although won’t – get on and argue out how Britain and its infrastructure should look in the future so we can vote on it. Labour has been woeful in avoiding debating questions that require taking hard decisions but I can’t see that the Tories are doing any better on this just now.

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