If you believe last year’s general election pledges, we are heading for big increases in public spending and a step-change investment in infrastructure. But will this actually happen and what does this year have in store? Ben Marshall investigates.
What is certain is that culture matters. As the saying goes, it “eats strategy for breakfast”. As in other parts of the world - where populists have weaponised infrastructure - UK politicians have used it to talk to regional inequalities, national pride and future prospects. Ipsos MORI has found that the public remain worried about the state of the country as a whole and are among the most negative in the world about the future. In 2019, the climate emergency (Oxford Dictionary word of the year) broke through as a major concern. 78% of us think we are heading for disaster if we don’t make major changes soon.
Getting closer to culture, public attitudes and priorities is the motivation behind our annual Global Infrastructure Index for which we survey citizens of 28 countries. The value of the Index, conducted in partnership with the Global Infrastructure Investor Association (GIIA), is that international comparisons reveal common challenges, but also uniquely national contexts.
This is evident in ratings of 14 individual infrastructure sectors and in our new ‘Nimby Index’ - Nimby an acronym for a “Not in my back yard” opposition to development. While Britons are relatively positive about wind energy infrastructure, for example, we are downbeat about rail and housing. And levels of support for new local building fall should it require development on greenfield or add to traffic and congestion. Indeed, nowhere else is the public more sensitive to these impacts than in Britain.
Like citizens elsewhere, the British see infrastructure as pivotal to economic progress. But “turning the page” on austerity cannot prevent its legacy living on. People are cost-sensitive and much cooler on increased taxation to fund infrastructure investment than they are about borrowing. This is especially so if they are unsure what ‘infrastructure’ is. They prioritise the maintenance of existing assets over the building of new ones.
The case for the new must still be made, especially as infrastructure’s reputation has deteriorated. Back in 2016, 48% agreed that “Britain has a poor record at getting national infrastructure projects right”. This year, post-Crossrail delays, it was 53%. If we are to invest big in infrastructure, we must do so in a way which builds confidence and addresses the multi-faceted problems with its image. We’ve found a “democratic deficit” in infrastructure but is there also a “delivery deficit”?
The other clear message from our survey is that the environment matters - and increasingly so. Britons prioritise investment in solar energy over 13 other sectors (Labour may be interested that broadband is tenth). Wind energy makes the top five alongside rail, flood defences and local roads. And the proportion of people who put the environment top among seven factors to be considered in future planning has increased from 19% to 28% in two years, making it a clear ‘winner’.
The key message from this? The “infrastructure revolution” cannot be confined to a step-change in investment alone. Spending and delivery must be smart, prudent, and green. These are three important goals for 2020 and beyond.
Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.