A lack of commitment
Those in the infrastructure arena keep hearing positive and soothing words from government. In particular, the industry is told time and again from officials and even ministers that, yes, infrastructure is a key plank of the growth agenda and, yes, private finance will be vital to that aim.
But as we head towards the end of the jamboree that is party conference season, there is still little evidence that infrastructure investment is particularly high up the political agenda.
Of the three main party conferences, a pledge to invest more in infrastructure to help kickstart the economy was put forward by only one of the speakers. Unfortunately for the UK, that person was shadow Chancellor Ed Balls – a member of the one party not currently in power, making pronouncements on what he would spend if in power all rather academic.
When it comes to those in power, the lack of commitment on infrastructure investment was telling. Prime Minister David Cameron – who took great interest in the first National Infrastructure Plan last year – mentioned "infrastructure" just once in his 50-minute keynote speech to the Conservative Party faithful. And even then, he was merely talking about the importance of high-speed rail and improved broadband connections to help grow businesses.
Housing was mentioned, but only in the context of Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy idea. Planning, too, was name-checked by Cameron – although noticeably this can deliver results without any money being put into it.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond did talk about transport investment in his speech, and Chancellor George Osborne mentioned the Green Investment Bank. But there was no reference to the government actually putting money into new projects, or any explanation how things like the Green Bank will work in practice to deliver growth.
Normally this lack of interest in infrastructure would be no surprise: infrastructure investment is rarely seen as a big vote winner, and party conferences generally play up to the politics rather than hammering out the finer details of policy.
But all three conferences were focused this year on the theme of growth. And the government – both the Lib Dems and Tories – have backed infrastructure investment as key to delivering that growth. So you would expect the issue to come up a bit more often in the speeches of the major players.
With growth grinding to a halt in the UK, I hope there is a bit more substance to the promises emanating from behind the scenes than what is being said on the public stage.