Monday, 10 August 2015

The great infrastructure scandal that plagues Great Britain

I don't know why, but the UK is lousy at doing infrastructure. At the bottom of my garden, I have the Thameslink line. I've always loved having my own trainset. Back in the early 1980's Ken Livingstone originally championed the concept of Thameslink, when running the GLC. The Snow Hill Branch was reopened between Farringdon and Blackfriars on a shoestring. This allowed Holborn Viaduct station to be redeveloped, releasing huge funds for the next phase of the project "Thameslink 2000" as it became known. This was a no brainer of a project. The idea was to allow trains from the East Coast mainline to also use the line and to improve junctions around Blackfriars and London Bridge to allow the Thameslink frequency to be massively increased. It was called Thameslink 2000 as it was due to open for the millenium. It is now scheduled to open in 2017/8.  If a complete no brainer of a project overshoots by 18 years, it is clear we need a fresh way of thinking.

When we read that a project such as Crossrail, which was first talked about in 1947,  cost the taxpayer £15.9 billion it seems expensive, however this is the headline costs. Huge projects like this (unlike tax cuts for billionaires, which are largely spent abroad and on foreign products) find most of the money is reinvested in the UK economy. The £15.9 billion includes wages for workers who are in the UK. Each one of these pays tax. There are huge amounts of steel, concrete, stone and building materials used. The vast majority of these are sourced from UK producers, again creating jobs and increasing the tax revenue. If we are extremely conservative, we can estimate that Crossrail will be used for a minimum of 100 years, therefore there is a huge time for a payback. The project will also generate building activity and economic regeneration, largely in the private sector in many areas of deprivation. Hundreds of small and medium size firms are also supported, producing components and the people who work on the projects spend their wages on high streets generating even more economic activity.

But Crossrail is at least going ahead. There are a large number of vital projects that government simply cannot get its act together to get going. The most scandalous of these are the stalled electrification schemes for the Midland Mainline and the Trans Penine rail route. Both of these projects would massively improve access to areas which are in desperate need of economic regeneration. Both of these projects would make UK PLC a more competetive place. And as with Crossrail, both would generate far more economic activity in the country than the cost. In short, they are no brainers. There are plenty of other projects which are complete no brainers. In our neck of the woods, the most obvious is the reopening of the derelict tube line from Mill Hill East to Copthall. This would allow direct access from Central London to Rugby supporters visiting Saracens RFC. It would also give easy access to two local schools for staff and pupils in Mill Hill East and Finchley, as well as giving a handy alternative route to Central London for many people in Mill Hill.

Another example is the much talked about rail station at Luton Airport. Currently people have  to endure an annoying bus transfer if travelling via train. In this day and age, this is ridiculous. Another example is the fact that the RAF musuem at Hendon is next to a rail line, but has no station. What other nation on earth would have such an important site with no station? A station for the RAF museum would also serve the huge new redevelopments in Colindale. Why the developers were not compelled to build a station is beeyond me.

One reason often given for the lack of spending on infrastructure, is that the government wants to balance the books. Given how beneficial such projects are to the economy, it is clear that a new way of accounting for such projects is urgently required. My solution would be to add a 1% infrastructure contribution to everyones income tax. This money would be ring fenced for such projects and the income from the investment would help support the pensions of todays working generation. I would also make all developers pay into the fund. I would make any large development have to pay for an independent study to ascertain the cost required for the infrastructure to support the scheme. This would then be levied from the developers. Developers make huge profits and get a free ride from the public purse. This is clearly inequitable and unfair.

Finally there is the time we take to agree project and hold inquiries. One of the reasons people object is because generally they are shafted by big projects such as Heathrow. In France, people get handsomely rewarded for any inconvenience. Here we get dodgy compulsory purchase orders. We need to learn from the French, where communities campaign for TGV lines to pass through their community as they know they will get a nice bung. In the short term it costs, but in the long term, things get built quickly and the most inconvenienced benefit as well. 

If the UK PLC wants to remain competetive, this cannot go on as it has. We need to change the way we think about upgrading our country. Sadly, despite the fine words of George Osborne before the election, we now see his promises were hollow rhetoric. He is just another in a long line of blinkered bean counters who will run our country into the ground. It breaks my heart.

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