For too long British people have had to suffer — from train delays, road chaos, excessive electricity bills and other consequences of successive governments failing to plan long term on big infrastructure projects.
When I became transport minister in 2008, Britain had no plan for rail modernisation and highways schemes beyond 2014. Yet major projects such as these take much longer than that to plan and deliver. And, because governments come and go, that means they require cross-party consensus.
Take Crossrail, the London east-west railway link that is scheduled to open in 2018. A lack of long-term planning delayed this vital project by 20 years. Keeping it on track after the change of government in 2010 required agreement from all the main parties. Where there is no such consensus — as with runway capacity in the south-east — decisions have again and again been deferred, and are now decades overdue.
I have been asked to establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission to look broadly at long-term infrastructure needs and provide impartial advice. Of course, ministers and parliament must take the decisions — and I welcome today’s announcement by George Osborne, chancellor, that the government will invest £100bn in infrastructure over the next five years. But the commission can give ministers the evidence they need, and hold them to account if they duck or delay.
I will be joined on the commission by global experts on economics, infrastructure, planning and technology. One is Demis Hassabis, founder and chief executive of DeepMind, the artificial intelligence start-up that was bought by Google last year. Another is Sir John Armitt, who as chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority oversaw the preparations for London’s tremendously successful Games. The hugely experienced Lord Heseltine is also involved.
Before next year’s Budget, we will publish on three national challenges. The first is the need to improve connectivity between cities in the north of England. It takes almost two hours to travel from York in the east to Liverpool in the west. In the same time you can reach London from York — twice the distance. Researchers have calculated that the commute between Leeds and Manchester takes 40 per cent longer than is the norm for cities of similar economic heft and proximity. Increasing travel capacity and cutting journey times between cities is essential if the north of England is to fulfil its economic potential. Now we need cost-effective plans.
The second challenge is sustaining investment in London’s transport infrastructure once current projects are complete. London’s elected mayoralty has made a huge difference to the capital’s transport infrastructure over the past 15 years, and Boris Johnson, the present mayor, has set out plans for beyond 2020 . Some of these schemes will have effects well beyond London — and they will require funding from national sources, as well as from the proceeds of the city’s growth.
The most difficult challenge of all concerns energy. Most existing coal and nuclear power stations will close in the 2020s or shortly afterwards. New capacity is coming on stream but much of it is wind and solar generation, which cannot always be counted on to work. We need to make sure we continue to match demand and supply without installing excessive capacity.
We will also prepare the first ever national infrastructure assessment looking ahead to requirements for the next 30 years. And we will look overseas to see what best practice we can promote in the UK — asking why infrastructure costs are so much higher in Britain than in France and Italy.
The 2012 Olympics showed that Britain is capable of building world-class infrastructure. For wealth to spread to all parts of Britain, that success has to be replicated everywhere.
The writer is chair of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission
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