Thursday 23 January 2020 5:23 am

Don’t underestimate the politics of infrastructure

Mark Rogers works at the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, based at King’s College London.

The Conservative election campaign slogan may have been “Get Brexit Done”, but the fate of this government will ultimately hinge on what it does here at home — specifically regarding infrastructure.

It is widely accepted, including by the Prime Minister himself and his chief aide Dominic Cummings, that the Conservatives need to do more than just take the UK out of the EU to hold on to the constituencies that formed the “red wall” of formerly Labour-held seats in future elections. 

Many first-time Tory voters have only lent their votes to the party — and they will need to see improvements in their day-to-day lives to continue giving it their support. 

While the government appears to recognise this, so far we have had little detail on how it intends to achieve its promises of “levelling up” parts of the country beyond London. The Budget in March will give us our first big indication of how focused the Conservatives will be on this goal, and how urgently they wish to address it. 

But it is already clear what the government’s first big infrastructure dilemma will be: HS2.

It is important to understand the political economy of infrastructure — and why it has become such a headline issue for voters outside the capital. 

As the Bennett Institute for Public Policy points out, “the disparity between the least and most productive regions in the UK is extreme by the standards of most other OECD economies.” The Institute for Public Policy Research, meanwhile, found that London gets £419 more per head than north of England.

The Tory election campaign rightly spotted that greater equity in transport investment was a key electoral issue. Their manifesto mentioned infrastructure almost three times more than Labour’s (28 mentions to 10). 

This context complicates the eagerly anticipated review of HS2. 

According to the report leaked this week, estimated costs have spiralled to almost double the original £56bn. There are also growing concerns that the economic benefits could be much lower than expected, making the project poor value for money. 

There have in turn been renewed calls for the project to be paused, rethought, or scrapped entirely.

However, while this debate rages, the government needs to consider political as well as economic factors — and what it decides now could prove pivotal to its future success.

As West Midlands mayor Andy Street (among others) has pointed out, delivering HS2 is an important part of the electoral picture because it will serve areas that have recently voted Conservative for the first time. Cancelling a big infrastructure project that “serves the north” would be terrible PR for the party at this crucial time.

And there’s also a Brexit angle. The stations that HS2 will serve include Carlisle, Crewe, Darlington, Preston, Runcorn, Warrington and Wigan — all places that voted Leave in the 2016 Referendum. If completed, it will reach stations in more Leave voting areas than Remain ones. 

It is widely accepted that one reason for the Brexit vote was nationwide sentiment that politicians had stopped listening to the concerns of ordinary people. Three years on, restoring public faith in our democratic system should be a key political concern for this government. 

And infrastructure now appears more important politically than aggregate measures such as GDP. During the Referendum, the Remain campaign stressed the importance of these metrics, but it didn’t tend to resonate with voters, in part because economic growth figures can seem remote and abstract. 

In contrast, infrastructure which voters interact with directly, like roads and railways, more clearly demonstrates how the government is taking action to affect their everyday lives. 

Indeed, as the UK in a Changing Europe and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have shown, part of the reason that faith in politics is so low is frustration with crumbling and malfunctioning local infrastructure that has gone unaddressed in recent years.

Cancelling a major infrastructure scheme therefore risks giving voters the impression that here is another politician going back on their promises. The success or failure of projects like HS2 is likely to have a substantial impact on public opinion — of both the Tory party, and our democratic system in general.

Projects like HS2 carry symbolic significance about how voters perceive Downing Street’s priorities. There is a debate to be had about the link between high-speed rail and increased productivity, and whether examples of its success (such as in Japan or Germany) can be replicated here. But HS2’s value to the government in demonstrating that it is committed to achieving what it promised should not be underestimated. 

We should therefore expect infrastructure to be a key political battleground this parliament, as the Conservative party tries to signal that the priorities of old have changed.

This could be much more significant to its long-term electoral prospects — and to the health of our democracy — than the small print of this year’s Brexit negotiations.

Main image credit: Getty

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