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4 February 2014
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A false hope?

The industry has long assumed ministers will want to push through a series of headline-grabbing social infrastructure initiatives, but that is looking increasingly unlikely
In the weeks and months after the coalition came to power in 2010, plenty of people in the infrastructure arena – and particularly those with an interest in social infrastructure – looked into their crystal balls and predicted that by late 2012 or early 2013, we would begin to see a raft of new projects emerging.

Their belief was based on the political cycle, and on the assumption that spades in the ground on vote-winning projects like schools and hospitals would be a key part of the pre-election rigmarole. After all, nothing says ‘vote for me’ like a trip to a brand new school, or to a new hospital that would not have existed without the politician’s own involvement.

But as we start the march through 2014, there remains scant evidence of such a programme. The Priority School Building Programme is the only sign of such an initiative – and its scale barely scratches the surface of the huge need across the education estate.

Perhaps disconcertingly for the industry, it appears that they may have miscalculated the political environment – and indeed the new economic landscape that exists in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

While the going was good in the Tony Blair years, investing in schools and hospitals really could win elections, because to not be spending money on such things could be seen as squandering public finances. Today, the fact that there is so little cash around means that the public is aware of other priorities.

Chancellor George Osborne has put all his political capital into bringing down the deficit. While it might be argued that a more sensible approach would be to deliver incremental reductions at the same time as investing in new projects today, Osborne and his fellow Conservatives can’t afford to think like that. An election, after all, is just over a year away and the Tories know that seizing power outright can probably only be achieved by demonstrating to the public that they have mastered the economy and, particularly, the country’s debt.

Whether or not investing in a series of projects now could boost the economy in the long run doesn’t come into it. Some might argue that bringing forward the £50bn-plus earmarked for High Speed Two could help deliver growth within a few short years. But from the Treasury’s point of view, that is simply putting yet more money onto the deficit, which would leave the opposition shooting at an open goal.

Then, of course, there is also the long shadow still cast over the Conservative Party by its former leader, Margaret Thatcher. It will not have been lost on those at the top of today’s Tory leadership that the Iron Lady managed to win three terms of office without investing much money in social infrastructure throughout that period.

So perhaps the ‘Age of Austerity’ is actually set in the 1980s, rather than the early 2000s when social infrastructure was popular.

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The industry has long assumed ministers will want to push through a series of headline-grabbing social infrastructure initiatives, but that is looking increasingly unlikely

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