Having approved a new nuclear plant at Hinckley Point, the next big infrastructure decision in Theresa May’s stacked in-tray is that vexed question – dodged by politicians for decades – of where to build Britain’s much-needed new airport capacity.
In July 2015, the five-person Airports Commission, appointed by David Cameron to shelve the issue until after the May general election, gave “unanimous backing” to a third runway at Heathrow. It looked almost certain Europe’s largest airport would get the all-important government nod.
After years of negotiations, posturing and pencil-sucking, plus a final review by our new Prime Minister, the construction of a new nuclear power plant at Hinckley Point was approved last week. I think that was wrong.
My reasons have little to do with the major role overseas interests will play in developing the UK’s first new nuclear station in over two decades. French atomic giant EDF is to build the £18bn Somerset plant, ending-up as the two-thirds majority shareholder. And the Chinese government will provide another third of the cash. I have no particular problem with that.
George Osborne’s eighth budget was apparently aimed at “the next generation”. The Chancellor used this phrase on 18 occasions during his hour-long Commons statement. This was a policy package for “the long-term” Osborne told us an astonishing 19 times.
The budget also offered “major new commitments to national infrastructure projects” – the i-word getting no less than 10 mentions. What with the “sugar tax”, though, shaky fiscal rules and rows over disability benefit, last week’s infrastructure announcements haven’t received much attention.
It’s not surprising the Chancellor emphasized infrastructure in his latest Commons set piece. Better roads and railways are vital, after all, if Britain is to address its worsening “productivity problem”.
With next month’s European elections looming, and a general election just over a year away, the government is now vigorously trying to shift the political narrative away from the downsides of “austerity” and instead towards the benefits that derive from the prudent control of day-to-day spending.
Last week, a clutch of ministers – including George Osborne and David Cameron – were photographed inspecting building projects across the country, hard hats and high-visibility jackets in abundance. The message was that the coalition is delivering on infrastructure, as the Treasury conveniently published an updated list of major projects set to be completed or started in 2014/15.
Bank holiday weekends, often involving travel to see friends and family, are traditionally a time for moaning about the UK’s gridlocked roads and erratic rail services.
The British late-summer, with many of us having just spent a week or two on the Continent, is also high season for wondering aloud why “their trains are better than ours”.