How can we judge infrastructure spending?

A new light rail line under construction in Sydney. Image: Getty.

In moments of fierce political competition, there’s one topic where most candidates find common ground – and that’s infrastructure spending. Pledges to spend more on transport, energy, water, waste and telecommunications systems are seen as vote winners in democracies across the globe.

In the United States, Donald Trump promised to deliver a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. And, in the UK general election campaign, all major parties made substantial commitments for infrastructure in their manifestos. Even the far-reaching austerity policies favoured by Western governments across the globe have failed to put a dent in infrastructure spending.

But while parties across the political spectrum readily commit to big-budget projects, it can be difficult for voters to know what outcomes to expect from the billions pledged toward infrastructure. Here are some tips to help you make sense of the sweeping claims and enormous pledges that politicians are wont to make regarding infrastructure, whenever a poll approaches.

Sensible spending requires a plan

Governments as far apart as the UK, Australia and New Zealand promote themselves based on their big infrastructure budgets. But not all investments are the same – and a big budget doesn’t guarantee better value for the public.

Infrastructure spending can be broadly divided into capital expenditure (building new things), operations (running what we already have) and maintenance (repairing what we already have). Getting value from infrastructure requires good decisions across all three categories.

Politicians love building new infrastructure: ribbon-cutting, high-vis vests and hard hats are a PR opportunity which few can resist. Photo-ops aside though, politicians may also favour big projects over smaller ones because it’s easier to overcome opposition and see them through to fruition. Yet investments in big-ticket infrastructure projects should be made with clear goals in mind. Unless an investment addresses a clear public need, it can easily result in a white elephant.

Governing in style: former UK prime minister David Cameron touring London’s Crossrail. Image: The Prime Minister's Office/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, the rationale for the UK’s HS2 – a high-speed rail link between London and northern England – has changed several times throughout its planning phase, suggesting that it may be a project searching for a problem to solve. What’s more, the project’s ability to regenerate the country’s north (one of it’s key selling points) may depend on complementary investments across the region, in addition to the rail link. Critics of the project claim it could be a costly mistake.

Spending on maintenance, or changing how you use existing infrastructure – while less flashy – can be just as effective. For example, re-franchising and extending the East London Line into the London overground network dramatically changed transport provision in the area. The low-frequency commuter service was transformed into a high-quality local service by linking together two existing lines with higher frequencies, improving trains and upgrading stations. Huge value was created by changing how the line was operated, rather than building a completely new one.

Similarly, if maintenance spending is cut when budgets are tight, systems can degrade faster and fail earlier. The 2016 water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a prominent example of this. Cost-cutting led the city to switch the water supply to the Flint River in 2014. The river water was more corrosive – and a combination of deteriorating infrastructure networks and poor monitoring of water quality led to dangerously high concentrations of lead in the city’s water supply.

Infrastructure investment ≠ growth

Since the 1980s, governments worldwide have relied on the faulty assumption that infrastructure investment stimulates economic growth. The problem with this is that you can’t easily detect cause and effect – so it’s difficult to tell whether large-scale infrastructure investment actually causes growth. Statistical analysis of empirical studies between 1990 and 2012 found that, on average, the correlation between investment and growth was positive but small – and highly variable. The wisdom of making public investment decisions based on such evidence is questionable.

Instead, new research suggests that the link between infrastructure investment and growth actually hinges on the quality of government. Government quality is determined by several measures, including transparency, appropriate use of evidence and expertise and robust processes within institutions responsible for infrastructure investment. Data from EU regions showed that improvements in local roads was only connected to growth where government quality was higher. This strongly supports the case that it’s not how much you spend, it’s how you spend it.

Better pledges offer real results

To truly communicate the value of infrastructure spending, politicians should explain (and you should ask) how it will deliver real-world outcomes – say, by improving your daily commute to work. Or – even better – how it will improve the commute of the person who makes your coffee or cleans your office. After all, travelling to work tends to be more expensive, and take longer for low-income workers.

A bit of a drag. Image: Mister Wind-up Bird/Flickr/creative commons.

These days, one of the most important outcomes to consider is the impact that infrastructure has on the environment. To address climate change, sustainability should be a priority in any infrastructure policy. It’s important to know if energy is coming from low-carbon sources, and if new investments give people a chance to switch to public transport, walking or cycling, or promote the use of electric or low-emission vehicles.

Cities are a special case

In cities, infrastructure investment is affected by one issue in particular: if the property market is driven by speculative investment without proper provisions for affordable housing, infrastructure improvements, particularly transport, are likely to fuel that speculation even further. Those who benefit from better infrastructure will be real estate developers and any buyers who haven’t already been priced out of the market. If housing policy does not aim for equality, it is hard to guarantee that the benefits of urban infrastructure investment will be fairly distributed.

Infrastructure is often talked about in terms of the great feats of engineering such as Bazalgette’s sewer system and underground railway systems. While advances in engineering are impressive, the political importance of infrastructure projects lies in what purpose they serve – whether it is for the benefit of public health, getting to work or school, or reliable access to energy and telecommunications.

The ConversationSo, the next time politicians promise to spend big on infrastructure, it’s important to ask how it will improve quality of life, support economic development and maintain and operate the vital infrastructure we already have – as well as funding shiny new projects.

Jenny McArthur is a postdoctoral research associate in the City Leadership Laboratory: Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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