Infrastructure populism: on the politics of building big, or failing to

When it comes to infrastructure, they’re all all talk. Image: Getty.

It is famously said of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that at least while he was dragging his country into a war in which over half a million of his citizens died, he was also making sure the trains ran on time. The murdering fascist wasn’t all bad: he did sort out Italy’s railways.

Now, shockingly, it turns out this is all complete claptrap and Mussolini actually did very little to improve the rail system. Popular beliefs to the contrary are all just part of the fascist myth that he built up around himself to validate his governance.

It’s fake news, but the widely believed claim strikes to the core of a bigger issue: politicians hijacking transport as an easy way to connect with voters. Because, despite Chris Grayling’s best efforts, getting from A to B is an aspect of modern life that can hardly be ignored; effective roads are required to keep the population fed and public transport needed to get people to work.

Like Mussolini before him, this is something Donald Trump has recognised. Among the cries of “lock her up” and “bad hombres”, a key part of his presidential election campaign was a promise to ramp up infrastructure investment. Trump was fed up that other countries “look at our infrastructure as being sad”. As someone who has tried to use Amtrak, the US domestic rail service, I’ve got to say I agree with him.

But it’s easy to complain; it’s following through with a solution that’s the real problem. Only 13 per cent of the $1.5trn Trump hopes to raise is going to come from federal purse, with the rest funded by… erm… something else. It’s in this delivery that this went from being a realistic promise of change to just saying what people want to hear.


On this side of the pond, we have a similar problem: Boris Johnson. A politician who regardless of the issue in question will suggest the answer is an absurd, massive infrastructure project in thinly veiled efforts to grab headlines and deflect from any helpful debate.

His stint as London mayor was dominated by such ill-thought out infrastructure projects. The new Routemaster buses and the Emirates Cable Car were a big waste of money. Aborted suggestions include the Garden Bridge Project, which managed to waste another £46m in public money without even being built, and the Thames Estuary Airport.

More recently, on the prospect of a hard Brexit and lorries queuing up the M20, Johnson proposed a road bridge between England and France. To solve the issue of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he called for another sea-crossing bridge. You get the idea.

So for Johnson, big projects are a cure-all for difficult problems, which can catch the headlines and allow any reasoned criticism to be easily be framed as not “believing in Britain”. 

Unlike Johnson and Trump, the Hungarian President, Victor Orban, has managed to follow through with his big projects. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with infrastructure. He has instead spent hundreds of millions of Euros on building football stadiums around the country all to the delight of football-mad Hungarians. This, in a country with one of the worst poverty rates in Europe.

In his 2006 study on the future of high-speed rail in the UK, the director of News Corporation and former CEO of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington, warned against being “seduced by ‘grands projets’ with speculative returns.” His message was intended for politicians but, in a world of Trumps, Johnsons and Orbans, is surely a lesson that should be learnt by everyone.

 
 
 
 

Joe Anderson: Why I resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Liverpool Lime Street station, 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool has a few choice words for Chris Grayling.

I resigned from the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week. I just didn’t see the point of continuing when it is now crystal clear the government isn’t committed to delivering the step-change in rail investment in the North that we so desperately need. Without it, the Northern Powerhouse will remain a pipedream.

Local government leaders like me have been left standing at the altar for the past three years. The research is done. The case has been made. Time and again we’ve been told to be patient – the money is coming.

Well, we’ve waited long enough.

The only thing left is for the transport secretary to come up with the cash. I’m not holding my breath, so I’m getting on with my day job.

There’s a broader point here. Rail policy has been like a roller-coaster in recent years. It soars and loops, twisting and turning, without a clear, committed trajectory. There is no consistency – or fairness. When London makes the case for Crossrail, it’s green-lit. When we make the same case for HS3 – linking the key Northern cities – we are left in Whitehall limbo.

Just look at the last week. First we had the protracted resignation of Sir Terry Morgan as Chairman of HS2 Ltd. Just when we need to see firm leadership and focus we have instead been offered confusion and division. His successor, Allan Cooke, said that HS2 Ltd is “working to deliver” services from London to Birmingham – the first phase of the line – from 2026, “in line with the targeted delivery date”. (“In line?”)

Just when HS2 finally looked like a done deal, we have another change at the top and promises about delivery are sounding vaguer. Rumours of delays and cost over-runs abound.

Some would like to see the case for HS2 lose out to HS3, the cross-Pennine east-west line. This is a bit like asking which part of a train is more important: its engine, or its wheels. We need both HS2 and HS3. We are currently left trying to build the fourth industrial revolution on infrastructure from the first.

If we are ever to equip our country with the ability to meet rising customer and freight demand, improve connectivity between our major conurbations and deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse, then we need the key infrastructure in place to do that.


There are no shortcuts. Ministers clearly believe there are. The second piece of disappointing news is that officials at the Department for Transport have already confirmed to the freight industry that any HS3 line will not be electrified, the Yorkshire Post reports.

This is a classic false economy. The renaissance of the Liverpool Dockside – now called Superport – is undergoing a £1bn investment, enabling it to service 95 per cent  of the world’s largest container ships, opening up faster supply chain transit for at least 50 per cent  of the existing UK container market. Why squander this immense opportunity with a cut-price rail system?

Without the proper infrastructure, the North of England will never fulfil its potential, leaving our economy lop-sided and under-utilised for another generation. This is not provincial jealousy. Building a rail network that’s fit for purpose for both passenger and freight will remove millions of car journeys from the road and make our national economy more productive. It will also be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Our European neighbours have long understood the catalytic effect of proper connectivity between cities.

Similarly, linking together towns and key cities across the North of England is a massive prize that will boost growth, create jobs and provide a counterweight to Greater London, easing pressures on the capital and building resilience into our national economy.

To realise this vision, we need the finance and political commitment. Confirmation that the government is pushing ahead with HS3 – as well as HS2 – is now sorely needed.

With Brexit looming and all the uncertainly it brings in its wake, it is even more pressing to have clarity around long-term investment decisions about our critical infrastructure. Given the investment, the North will seize the chance.

But until ministers are serious, I have a city to run.

Joe Anderson is the elected Labour mayor of Liverpool.