Skip to main content

When we talk about infrastructure it can all seem a bit dry, but let me take you back to the summer of 2012, and the Olympics. It was a triumph, not only for its sporting successes, but also for an infrastructure programme that has forever changed the East End.

It has shown us that we should expect more. Such success in delivery can no longer be the exception. It has to become the rule.

Infrastructure is vital to the success of a vibrant economy; the advantages we have – flexible labour markets, the English language, world class universities and the City of London – have all been undermined by decades of short-term decision making. Trapping business in Victorian era transport and communications networks.

The state of our infrastructure is not a theoretical policy debate. It is about the bottom line for UK businesses; their profitability, reach and international competitiveness. And the efficient, effective improvement of our public services.

This is why infrastructure development is a top priority for the government – with over £300 billion in capital spending in the next decade. And announced today the Government is investing at least 12 billion in local economies in a series of ‘Growth Deals’, supporting the creation of thousands of new jobs, the building thousands of new homes and start hundreds of infrastructure projects.

When we came into government in 2010 there was no plan, no pipeline and no certainty for the market. There is now. The National Infrastructure plan was published, and is updated every year. We have more certainty about our needs, and the market can respond.

Project delivery and finance – two traditional stumbling blocks – have also received a lot of attention. The creation of the Major Projects Leadership Academy, the increased capacity in highly skilled apprenticeships and the UK Guarantees scheme are all helping projects to get off the ground and progress as hoped.

But despite all the great work that’s been done by this Government we still face challenges.

On such example in the very short-term is the need to house the 11,000 troops and 17,000 family members and support staff coming back from Germany, the majority of whom will arrive by the end of next year. This is in addition to the much needed housing we need to build across the country.

In the longer term we need to make sure that we rebalance the economy, not just by industry, but geographically. Unlike the last Labour Government, we admitted that there was a problem and that we had to tackle the North-South divide.

Diversifying UK plc and doing more to spread growth evenly is important for our future stability, and infrastructure is central to growth in the regional economies. The cities of the north can thrive and the £35 million for the Atlantic Gateway and University Enterprise Zone announced by the Chancellor last week is just the beginning.

There is no doubt that our national transport system is under strain and is a constraint on growth.

Airport capacity is a massive challenge for us. Passenger numbers are forecasted to more than double between 2010 and 2050 to 470 million, and we are in danger of losing out to our European competitors in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris, as well as those further afield in Istanbul, Dubai and China.

And just like air travel, rail passenger journeys have doubled in the past 20 years, and will continue to for the foreseeable future. We need to be ready for that growth; while Network Rail is spending £38 billion on maintenance and improvements over the next 5 years, this still won’t be enough to provide the capacity we need if the main arteries aren’t going to be overwhelmed.

But in a democracy we can’t make our infrastructure decisions by diktat, it’s vital that we take both the local community and wider country with us. This is why the Davies Commission on airport capacity is so important – listening to the experts, considering all the options, so the government can come to the right decision for the country.

We know there will be controversy, and this is somewhat inevitable whenever there is upheaval and disruptions. We have to work to build a consensus, but this should take years not decades, because time is not on our side.

Take our energy capacity as an example; more than a third of the UK’s energy needs are dependent on imported fuels, domestic fossil fuels declining and our domestic generating capacity is ageing. This has real significance in terms of our energy security – as recent geopolitical events have shown. Which is why projects like Hinkley C are so important.

Large infrastructure investments stand apart from many other decisions made – they are big choices with big impacts, lasting centuries, not decades. And nor can they be delivered overnight. This is one of the major challenges that politicians face.

How do you get a community to buy into accepting large infrastructure locally? It’s far far more challenging to get people on board with a power station or train route in their backyard, with completion dates a decade in advance, over a new school or hospital finished in 2 or 3 years.

We must address these barriers, and make direct community benefit more important. Section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy must to be used and enforced, with monies spent directly in the local community.

And it’s not just about investment in physical capital. A country’s most important assets is its people. Which is why we are delivering unprecedented numbers of apprenticeships.

We’re on track to see over 2 million apprenticeship starts by the end of this parliament, and this includes support for higher apprenticeships delivering high level skills in strategic sectors like engineering or nuclear technology, which are equivalent to a degree or masters.

To sustain our global competitiveness the debate within this government is not whether to invest but how best to do so – we can no longer struggle by, and this government doesn’t buy into the traditional ‘make do and mend’ mentality. There will always be controversy – but this is not a sign that projects are not needed. This government is taking the best advice and listening to what people say, and ultimately confronting the consequences of both action and inaction.

Balanced and successful economy requires modern and efficient infrastructure. Ultimately, we have to be ambitious.

Nadhim Zahawi is the Member of Parliament for Stratford-on-Avon and a member of the Number 10 Downing Street Policy Board. Follow Nadhim on Twitter.

This is a speech made by Nadhim Zahawi at Bright Blue’s annual conference, Aspiration Nation.