City Matters: Britain’s infrastructure crunch is coming: Doing nothing is not an option

Mark Boleat
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AS THE British summer makes a fleeting appearance, the demands placed on our infrastructure are only set to increase.

The roads, trains and airports will all face additional strain over the coming months, as commuters jostle with overseas tourists and British holidaymakers. This is part of a longer-term trend that has serious consequences for the competitiveness of London and the UK.

The pressing nature of this problem was highlighted by a new report from TheCityUK, which found that there is a global infrastructure investment gap of $1 trillion (£587bn) a year. If we are to avoid a capacity crunch, it is vital that policymakers take urgent steps to address this shortfall and invest for the future.

Fittingly, therefore, this issue has been on the minds of those in charge. Boris Johnson continues to campaign for a new Thames Estuary airport, and last week George Osborne expounded on plans for an HS3 railway to facilitate the creation of a northern super-hub. Whether a new airport in the Thames Estuary is truly the solution to Britain’s ever-tightening airport capacity remains open to debate. What isn’t open to debate, however, is the fact that we need more airport capacity, and we need it now – whether this is at Gatwick, Heathrow, the Estuary or somewhere else entirely. Delaying decisions for temporary expediency will only create a more difficult situation in the long term.

And the same is true of the railways: Crossrail 2 and HS2 are big ideas that need proper consultation in order to determine whether they represent the best value for money. But if they do, they must be built. The need for the Thameslink upgrade was identified in 1989, but halfway through 2014 it is only just being finished; we can’t let this happen again.

The government hopes that we won’t – and this is a central plank of its 2013 National Infrastructure Plan, which highlights its intention to invest £375bn in the six years to 2020. More private investment will also be needed over the coming years if necessary upgrades to UK infrastructure are to become a reality. But it is not possible to invest in projects that don’t exist in a concrete form. The chancellor has admitted that his idea for HS3 exists only in the broadest possible terms, and even HS2, which has been bandied about for years now, has still no defined route and start date. If we are to make the necessary investments in transport infrastructure, we need to create a pipeline of shovel-ready projects to ensure that we are prepared for London’s future growth and can remain an unparalleled business destination.

With the economic recovery now in full swing, we can expect the population of London to grow to at least the current prediction of 9m by 2020, and for the number of businesses London holds and jobs London supports to grow along with it. These workers will need to commute, and the transport system will need to be ready for them.

Mark Boleat is policy chairman at the City of London Corporation.

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