Labour’s infrastructure plans won’t tackle the biggest barrier to delivery

AirlinerThis post appeared first on BusinessGreen.

Heathrow was the elephant in the room at Tuesday’s Infrastructure Commission launch by Labour in Westminster. Most people there heard the shadow chancellor’s commitment to take early decisions on infrastructure as an indication that he’d approve a third runway if Labour gets back into power.

Balls didn’t say he’d back a runway, but the idea of an Infrastructure Commission is going down well with the experts because it promises an answer to the malaise they see in the Heathrow debate. They blame weak ministerial leadership and partisan politics for delaying a scheme they consider as self evidently a good thing for the nation.

Sir John Armitt’s carefully crafted proposal appeals to business because its national infrastructure plan would allow them to hold politicians’ feet to the fire on specific commitments like aviation. Ed Balls welcomed this prospect, promising that it would allow government to “take the politics out” of such decisions, which is always attractive to those who have dealt with the messy process politics generates.

The commission is welcome, but it can’t remove the politics
There are many good things to be said about the commission proposal.  It has evolved significantly since its inception, and has taken on board Green Alliance’s suggestion that decarbonisation and resource efficiency need to be organising principles for infrastructure modernisation. Ed Balls deserves credit for insisting that green economy objectives are at the heart of the commissions brief. If the right people are appointed to the commission it should help end the supply side bias in infrastructure spending and increase investment in transport demand management and energy efficiency. What it will not do, even if it leads to cross-party agreement, is take the politics out of infrastructure.

This is because most infrastructure politics takes place outside parliament. The troubled tales of fracking and Heathrow illustrate this, and point to the biggest weakness of the proposal:  there is no structure to engage the public, or to harness the huge power of our cities and counties to deliver smart, sustainable infrastructure… or their potential to block it.

Public debate is needed
Few energy technologies have received as much political support as fracking. The prime minister has made the case consistently and forcefully for over two years that it is in the UK’s interest to “go all out for shale”. The chancellor has cabinet backing for an action plan to help exploration companies establish the first wells and Labour and the Lib Dems remain broadly supportive. And yet, so far we do not have any sites up and running.

Parliament is clearly not the problem. Industry is losing its licence to operate before it gets started, as public consent, or lack of it, is being determined in parish halls and local planning committees, not in Westminster.  The commission wouldn’t be able to make fracking popular but, if it was committed to help cities and counties understand their energy options, the debate would become less polarised and the politics of energy infrastructure would be a little less fraught.

Superficially, Heathrow looks like a partisan Westminster battle. A Labour government said yes, a Conservative opposition said no, and the wheels came off the tarmac roller before the 2010 election. Except that, in reality, both parties are deeply divided on the subject, there has been consistent public opposition, and the intervention of successive London mayors has made it harder for national politicians to overrule public sentiment. The commission can’t make Heathrow the Londoner’s choice, nor should its job be to simply ‘sell’ a particular option. But it should aim to do more than a technocratic assessment of aviation capacity. It should encourage structured debate with protagonists about transport capacity need, different ways of meeting it, and the costs and trade-offs they involve, as an alternative to the hollowed out media debate we currently have.

The British are ultimately pragmatic
This may sound a frightening prospect if you are used to public consultation meetings on controversial projects, but deliberative debate on infrastructure choices and priorities would have a very different flavour, and it works. The British are a pragmatic breed and, when given the information about trade-offs and options, we are generally willing to compromise. I know because I participated in a year-long exercise to help the counties of south west England develop their own renewable energy strategy. Fixed positions on wind power and other technologies soon dissipated as choices and costs were explored. By the end, six counties had all adopted their own renewable energy targets with distinct strategies to achieve them.

Infrastructure planning can enable this diversity of approaches to shared challenges, ideally at combined authority level, with each working towards an overarching national plan but in a way that works for their city or county.

The Infrastructure Commission is a good start in solving the knotty political problem of how to align different interests to a common plan to make Britain greener, leaner and more prosperous. But the size of its ambition means it will only work if it establishes a structure and a culture of public engagement.

It’s not hard to do, but it does require humility from business and politicians to open up the process and allow citizens in. English devolution provides new opportunities to do just that. Green Alliance will be publishing detailed proposals of how it can be done in the next fortnight.

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