Pleasing the electorate means killing infrastructure developments

Infrastructure developments are being stifled by political ambition

Author: Jules Gray
August 29, 2014
London’s Crossrail is the largest transport and infrastructure project in Europe, but took 60 years to get government approval
London’s Crossrail is the largest transport and infrastructure project in Europe, but took 60 years to get government approval

For most modern democracies, getting even the most minor, short-term decisions made can be an arduous task at the best of times. Planning anything beyond the term of a government is especially difficult, as elected politicians start to make decisions based not on the long-term good of the country, but on how their re-election prospects might be affected.

The problem is understandable, albeit selfish. After all, why would someone spend vast sums of money on something they’re unlikely to see the benefit of? A government may deem it foolish to dedicate valuable resources to something that won’t be built until long after it can claim any of the glory.

Inadequate infrastructure
However, with the world becoming increasingly industrialised and urban sprawls getting larger, the infrastructure needs of countries have never been so stark. Both developing and developed countries are experiencing rapid population growth, causing significant strain on infrastructure. While developing countries are struggling to build quickly enough to satisfy increasingly demanding citizens, developed countries are finding infrastructure that was good enough decades ago is no longer adequate for their current populations.

Although large transport projects are usually the most widely discussed infrastructure schemes, a whole range of other things come into the category. Schools must be built to cater for future generations of pupils, particularly in countries experiencing rampant population growth. Likewise, the energy needs of increasingly industrialised populations need to be met. Clean water must also be easily accessible to all the many new homes that will have to be built for future generations.

Some countries have found it easier than others to get transformative infrastructure projects off the drawing board and into operation. Many Gulf countries have little difficulty getting approval to construct impressive new infrastructure, perhaps due to the lack of citizens having a say in what gets built. Similarly, China has powered ahead with a huge array of new roads, airports, water systems, power plants, accommodation and rail networks, with little in the way of NIMBY campaigns to hold things up.

Unfortunately for countries with strong democratic political systems, merely ploughing on with big projects without stopping to consider the wishes of the people is tricky. India, a country in love with bureaucracy and elections, has struggled to build the huge infrastructure projects its swelling population so clearly needs. Likewise, the UK has frequently kicked decisions on major projects into the long grass, hoping a future government will have to take the tough decision and foot the bill. As a result, the country is now suffering; its infrastructure network was once the envy of the world, but is now wildly inadequate for the needs of its ever disgruntled population.

However, recent proposals by both sides of the UK’s political spectrum have hinted that politicians might finally be starting to look beyond the date of their next election, and towards the needs of future generations. First, there was the announcement last year by the opposition Labour Party that it had tasked a former expert on large-scale projects to look into what the country needed to do to build for the future.

A shift in focus
In 2013, businessman Sir John Armitt, who had headed up the UK’s Olympic Delivery Authority, unveiled his report into Britain’s infrastructure needs. Armitt’s work had been widely praised for ensuring the 2012 London Olympic Games was on schedule, leading the Labour Party to enlist him for this study.

In his report, Armitt cited the trailblazing Victorians as an example of people who understood how important infrastructure was to a successful, modern economy, and why clear and long-term planning was crucial to allow future generations to prosper. “Today we cannot dodge the need to adapt what we have inherited or the critical importance of investing for the future,” he said.

He added that governments – and particularly the UK – often find it difficult to get beyond the initial planning phase of a major infrastructure project as a result of indecision. “At the front-end of the investment cycle we seem to encounter problems; understanding why we must invest, what we must build, how and when we are going to deliver projects and then sticking to decisions. What are often missing are the enabling factors of cross party support and clear objectives.”

As a result, Armitt recommended that the British government set up a National Infrastructure Commission with statutory independence from government, therefore transcending the petty squabbles of party politics. The commission would assess the infrastructure needs of the UK each decade for the coming 30 years or so, outlining for the government of the day what exactly needed building, and providing them with the shopping list.

Armitt cites the examples of similar bodies around the world, including the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority, which plans 40 years ahead for projects, and the New Zealand’s National Infrastructure Unit, which has a 20-year focus. Infrastructure Australia is another body that allocates capital on ‘evidence-based’ appraisals of schemes.

Bridging the gap
Encouragingly, one of the leading figures from the other side of the political divide made noises about the need for a long-term view regarding infrastructure. Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the colourful Conservative Party politician who is set to re-enter Parliament at next year’s general election, unveiled his Infrastructure Plan 2050 in August, laying out what he believes the UK’s capital requires to cater for its citizens in the next 35 years.

Setting out a staggering £1.3trn shopping list of major projects London apparently needs, Johnson said: “This plan is a real wake-up call to the stark needs that face London over the next half century. Infrastructure underpins everything we do and we all use it every day. Without a long-term plan for investment and the political will to implement it, this city will falter. Londoners need to know they will get the homes, water, energy, schools, transport, digital connectivity and better quality of life that they expect.”

In the report, he called for a range of projects, including a new orbital rail line around London, as well as the much-needed Crossrail 2 underground line. Predictably, Johnson also made the case for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary, something that has been discussed since the 1960s but dismissed by successive governments as too expensive. The current government is thought to favour the far cheaper alternative of expanding Heathrow Airport, even though it is constrained by space and already near full capacity. It is an example of such a decision that many feel should be taken out of the hands of short-termist governments. The contrast between the two options is stark: Heathrow could get an additional runway at a cost of around £15bn, but with current rates of air travel rising, this would be filled within a decade or two; the Thames Estuary, with its four runways, would be able to cater for the needs of the UK’s aviation industry for far longer, but would cost anything between £45bn and £80bn to build.

The huge costs associated with catering for population growth make most politicians squirm and look for short-term fixes. But they must not be allowed to put projects on the back burner so they can play to the electorate. The alternative to making the sort of bold decisions the Victorians are famed for is to do nothing. While it may allow governments to offer tempting tax cuts to the electorate shortly before an election, it does nothing for the long-term needs of the country, and the generations of workers who will suffer with the shockingly inadequate infrastructure left to them by those in charge now.