George Freeman is prospective parliamentary candidate for the new constituency of Mid Norfolk and is founder of The Norfolk Way, a campaign to promote a new vision of sustainable development in Norfolk.
We need to get the real economy moving again. We won’t do that just by pouring billions into the busted banks and public sector. We need to unlock the debt-free investment to grow our way back to sustainable prosperity. As the policy makers in London cast around for 'Big Ideas' for economic reconstruction, I'd like to suggest one with the potential to really unlock the potential of our regional economies.
It is based on the Victorian model: they invested the equivalent of billions in a rail network funded out of the development gains it helped unlock. Why don’t we do the same for modern infrastructure by creating a new type of regional infrastructure 'building society'?
The collapse of the New Labour credit boom has made it all too obvious that we need a new model of growth. Relying on servicing the City, speculating on housing and cheap credit to fuel consumer spending is not sustainable. We need a more balanced, sustainable and competitive enterprise economy, generating the long term savings and investment we need. How?
My region has the potential to be the next 'Silicon Valley' of sustainable technologies. We can lead the world in agriculture; renewable energy; clean fuels, engineering and biomedicine. On the A11 corridor we have Cambridge University; the UK's leading biotechnology cluster; the John Innes Centre; the Institute of Food Research; the UEA Climate Research unit, and a cluster of precision engineering and renewable energy expertise.
But one major obstacle is holding us back: underinvestment in infrastructure. We will never unlock the potential of the region unless we invest in the necessary rail, road, broadband and sustainable housing development to get our region moving and show how 'green growth' can work.
Why is it that whilst Cambridge and Norwich have been booming, we still have deep pockets of deprivation in Peterborough, Kings Lynn, Cromer, Yarmouth and Lowestoft? The simple answer is the poverty of our communications links. The benefits of the Norwich-Cambridge corridor will not spread if people cannot get around easily. Investing in our rail, road and broadband infrastructure will allow us to spread prosperity, reduce congestion, lessen understandable opposition to the current policy of house dumping on places like Attleborough, and create powerful drivers of innovation.
Therefore I propose a new "Regional Infrastructure Building Society" to raise and invest the billions we need for new high quality housing spread around a network of fast rail, road and broadband links. So how would it work?
- Create a new vehicle with a 20 year franchise to run the TOC and Railtrack businesses, conditional upon commitment to a long term housing and infrastructure investment programme;
- Grant the new vehicle special development rights along the rail corridor, with generous compulsory purchase and compensation as they have in France;
- Empower the vehicle to issue a (Government backed) 5% coupon to investors;
- Encourage a wide range of individual, corporate and pension fund investors;
- Structure the vehicle so that it is led by a regional figurehead, is accountable to its regional shareholders and local councils (this could act as a catalyst for local democracy and leadership);
- Allow local authorities in the region to be shareholders with a stake in the wider regional infrastructure vision.
With the Government increasingly unable to sell its own gilts, the investment market needs debt-free, asset-backed, real economic engines of growth to invest in. We all do.
East Anglia has the talent and technology to lead the sustainable technology revolution. But we need the infrastructure engine to get it moving.