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Our infrastructure is headed for a crash – we must get it back on track

With overdue northern rail upgrades hitting the buffers of an indefinite 'pause', Labour MEP Lucy Anderson flags up signs of a wider crisis in essential public infrastructure

July 23, 2015
4 min read

LAnderson-infrastructureTransport infrastructure faces an alarming future at current levels of investment. Photo: George Gastin (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Failure to invest in and adapt public infrastructure in the UK, and to properly address future needs, is creating another crisis – one mirrored across the EU. This should be a huge issue for the left to take forward, but it is simply not getting enough attention.

The Institute of Civil Engineers defines infrastructure as ‘the physical assets underpinning the UK’s networks for transport, energy generation and distribution, electronic communications, solid waste management, water distribution and wastewater treatment.’ In each case, it is clear that the nation is not planning for the investment required to service the projected increase in demand from at least 10 million more people to 2035, let alone further innovation and expansion.

A 2013 assessment by the World Economic Forum ranked the UK 27th in the world on quality of infrastructure. We know that the situation is not improving, even while the IMF is pushing for countries with advanced economies to invest. Their argument suggests that if infrastructure spending increases by 0.1 per cent of GDP, it raises the level of output across the economy by about 0.4 per cent in the same year, and by 1.5 per cent within four years.

Investment in transport infrastructure in particular is falling behind across Europe. There is also growing concern about the state of maintenance and renewal of key infrastructure in ‘older’ member states such as the UK, especially in relation to rail. A study prepared in the context of the 2011 EU transport white paper concluded that securing the necessary European transport infrastructures requires investments of €1.5 trillion between 2010 and 2030.

Improving public transport infrastructure, where investment focuses on appropriate and sustainable projects, is more than just a desirable option. As the Royal Town Planning Institute acknowledges: ‘Transport infrastructure also shapes people’s decisions about where to live work and invest. It can transform and regenerate places, and it can facilitate the operation of industries which ostensibly are unrelated to it. By improving connectivity, it can help ensure greater social and economic inclusion, distributing further and wider the proceeds of growth. Moreover it delivers wider social benefits including providing access to healthcare and education and greater choice for consumers.’

In the UK, we have seen the Government refuse to commit to anything like the investment needed in transport infrastructure. The 2013 National Infrastructure Plan lacked any new money and further evidence came in June with the announcement of delays to Network Rail projects. In the meantime, the UK languishes at the bottom of the EU league table for rail electrification.

This is not simply a matter of spending cuts. Sixty per cent of economic infrastructure is already in private hands, raising serious concerns about the ability of democratically elected politicians to take decisive action to plan for the future.

Our experience of rail privatisation is evidence that the private sector will not fill those public investment gaps. The 2012 Rebuilding Rail report demonstrated that genuine private investment in the railways has been minimal when compared with contributions from the public purse and passengers. As outlined in the Labour-commissioned Armitt Review: ‘Whilst the private sector can provide some resources on a speculative basis in the early stages of project development, over the long term, funding of infrastructure can only come from three sources – national taxation, local taxation and user charging’.

In the coming years, it is incumbent upon supporters of socialist and green policies from all parts of the Labour and trade union movement and beyond to campaign hard for change to long-term investment policies.

Lucy Anderson is a Labour MEP for London and spokesperson for the European Parliamentary Labour Party on transport