Tick, tick, tick

Anyone hoping that the Conservative conference would give a hint to the UK government’s plans to ‘build back better’ will have been disappointed by speeches from the chancellor and prime minister, says Paul Jarvis

One could be forgiven for missing the fact that the Conservatives have been having their annual party conference in recent days.

These are, as we all know, unprecedented times, but it demonstrates just how distracted even the news outlets are that the conference of the party currently in office can tick along without being paid a great deal of attention. The conference this year is, of course, virtual, which may have something to do with the lack of enthusiasm around it – it is much harder to get gossip over a Zoom chat with several other hundred people than it is in the corner of a ballroom late into the evening.

And conference time is never traditionally the place to find detailed policy announcements, with parties of all stripes tending to prefer to use the occasion to take pot-shots on their rivals, while trumpeting their own success to the wider public.

So it may not have been overly surprising that rishi Sunak, in his maiden speech to conference as Chancellor of the Exchequer, steered clear of discussing the government’s plans to kickstart the economy through infrastructure investment. That was despite the fact he was standing in front of the party’s ‘Build Back Better’ slogan.

Part of the reason Sunak had nothing to say on infrastructure will have been that his boss, Boris Johnson, had clearly decided to pinch for his own speech all the good stuff about a swashbuckling British Isles, using wind power to rule the world.

However, there was in fact very little new in Johnson’s speech either. Certainly nothing like the firing of a starting gun on a new round of major investment in British infrastructure. His main thrust was that the country would build more wind turbines and associated infrastructure – something that we all knew was on the cards.

Quite how this will be delivered remained vague. There was an announcement of £160m for upgrading port infrastructure to help develop offshore wind projects, but given the scale of ambition, that sum is (pardon the pun) a drop in the ocean.

While it may be easy to dismiss this as typical of party conference speeches – big on rhetoric, light on detail – in October 2020 this matters more because we are running out of time to get the revolution underway that will successfully take the country out of the pandemic-initiated recession.

We all know that it can take some time for the levers of government to crank into gear. For example, its creation and use of the aggregator model to deliver new school buildings in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis was widely derided by the industry as fixing a problem that was no longer there. The truth was that the private sector had long since dealt with the liquidity issue and moved on.

Which is why we need to see government action on infrastructure investment sooner rather than later. Failure to deliver a programme of investment when the market needs it will be a missed opportunity and will likely result in the government spending more later.

Talk abounds of a possible infrastructure bank. But how long will that take to be established? And will there be a clear identifiable list of projects for it to invest in once it is up and running?

Creating the architecture of a completely new entity does not smack of a quick fix, and while having a funding and financing mechanism available for the long term would be welcome, there needs to be investment now if the UK government really is going to “stand back and let the private sector get on with it”, as Johnson said in his conference speech.

In the meantime, the clock just keeps on ticking.