Benedict McAleenan is a consultant at Edelman, specialising in built environment policy
In a poll just hours after George Osborne stepped away from the dispatch box last week, voters placed infrastructure as their number two priority for government spending, second only to the NHS. Britons see the need to gear up for the twenty-first century but, ironically, they are held back by their own democracy. Not like the Chinese, who plough ahead regardless of local opposition. Or the Victorians, who cleared slums to make way for the tube. Modern Britain consults and compromises, but at the cost of long-term preparedness.
There are dozens of suggested solutions. Use the Community Infrastructure Levy to incentivise local planning. Compensate the neighbours of development sites directly. Pay more for land under compulsory purchase. Require an infrastructure plan in every council’s Local Development Framework. Aim to get at least close to the OECD average for infrastructure spend. But the real problem is political: MPs don’t like looking over the horizon of the next election. You don’t get voted in on ten-year projects.
When politicians get scared of big decisions, they farm them off to experts. The Davies Commission on airport capacity is a perfect example: a politically sensitive issue, sent into the long grass until the next election has passed. To his credit, Sir Howard has pledged to “make the best of [our] time in the long grass.” But that is no way to run a government, when time is of the essence and competitors’ airports are soaring ahead. It is undemocratic, and it is tactical, not strategic.
By contrast, the House of Lords has delivered stability across the shifting sands of time for hundreds of years. In doing so, the Law Lords, sitting at the apex of our parliamentary system, helped to create the rule of law that underpins Britain. We should not let a fashion for equating democracy with elections stop us from realising such value now. According to the Economist, that fashion is undermining democracy across the western world. It suffers at the hands of flighty political whim. I would happily see the Lords elected, but if their mandate in the meantime is as a body of experts taking the long view, then they must help us to plan our long-term needs.
For infrastructure, the Lords could institutionalise that hotch potch of ad hoc expert commissions. Instead of appointing a Beeching or a Davies each time we feel the need to think about big projects, a permanent House of Lords Commission could look 30 years ahead and study what we need to do to move our country forward.
It could refresh the pipeline every five or six years, proposing a framework bill to set out the strategically significant projects needed over the next 30 years. It could cost up the projects, suggesting to the Treasury a ‘control period’ of funding for the next decade, similar to that used by Network Rail and proposed for the Highways Agency. That does not mean describing every B-road upgrade, but the major arteries of our economy – such as airports, railfreight, HS2, HVDC interconnectors and broadband. It could then propose a framework bill to the House of Commons, similar to the finance bills that arise from annual Budgets.
In between its cyclical reports, this Lords Commission could fulfil an equally useful role: that of pan-departmental scrutineer on delivery. Infrastructure UK has no dedicated committee to hold it to task – the Treasury Select Committee has too much on its mind. Individual select committees in the Commons sit in siloes, and consist of professional politicians. That is not to denigrate their work, but to admit their limits. A House of Lords Commission can get beyond these things.
A proper approach to major infrastructure also means our children and grandchildren won’t face quite such an horrendous time building homes. Better connecting the regions means creating jobs across the nation and thereby balancing housing markets. That relieves pressure on London and the South East.
It also creates corridors for development: it is much easier to justify one large housing development at the junction of a major road (perhaps partly funding the infrastructure around which it is built) than it is to bolt 100 houses onto every village in the shires. The approach is recommended by Sir David Higgins in his interim report on HS2: councils and HS2 should work together on local development opportunities; Euston should operate as a terminal financed by new homes nearby.
There’s an apocryphal story about a Vatican spokesman, castigating the world’s media correspondents: “The problem with you reporters,” he said, “is that you think in hours and days and weeks. This is the Vatican. It thinks in centuries.” In the House of Lords we have another of the world’s venerable institutions. It can think in decades at least, if not in centuries. On big infrastructure planning, we should ask it to do so.