Chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid launched the first wave of an “infrastructure revolution” today at the Conservative Party conference, as he announced a range of spending pledges on roads, buses and broadband roll-out.
Summoning up the spirit of the industrial revolution of the Victorian era, Javid said: “Infrastructure is the foundation of everything. It’s the new road that connects local communities. The bus you need to get to school. And the broadband that helps your small business trade around the world.”
Speaking to Tory delegates in Manchester, Javid said that successive governments had failed to invest enough for the long term and admitted that the “full benefits of our infrastructure revolution may not be felt for some time, but the work must start here and now”. He pledged £29bn committed for strategic and local roads over the next five years and announced an early start on several important road projects. These included upgrading the M60 Simister Island in Greater Manchester, dualling the A66 Transpennine and starting work on the A428 between Cambridge and Milton Keynes.
Javid also promised more investment in buses, which he said haven’t been given the attention they deserve from politicians. “They are still the backbone of our public transport in most of the country and at the spending round we allocated £220m to form part of a national bus strategy next year,” said Javid. This would include new ‘superbus’ networks, expanding the fleet of low emission buses and delivering better value for money for passengers, the chancellor said.
Turning to broadband, Javid said that the government had rolled out superfast broadband, but the UK had fallen behind many European countries on the next generation of technology. “As we catch-up I don’t want any part of our country to fall behind others, so I can announce we are committing £5bn to support full-fibre rollout to the hardest to reach 20% of the country. All of these measures will level up areas of our country that feel left out,” Javid claimed.
The announcements were immediately attacked by Labour, with the party saying that the headline transport measures contained £25bn in already-declared funds for road improvements. They said the chancellor’s pledges were a “combination of re-announcements and damp squibs”.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “This combination of re-announcements and damp squibs shows up the real difference between the parties: the Tories tinkering around the edges, versus Labour’s fundamental shift of power and wealth from the few – to the many. A hundred and thirteen times more for roads than for public transport makes a mockery of the Tories’ so-called green credentials.”
Javid said that three principles would underpin his infrastructure plans. He said the government would be smart and responsible in the way it invested for the long term, taking advantage of incredibly low interest rates and and borrowing-to-build. Second, they would have a bias towards anything that brings the country together and this also meant rebalancing the economy. “That’s why the first big policy decision of this government was to support the development of Northern Powerhouse Rail. And we know it’s no good just decreeing from on high what local areas need. So, I can announce today we will bring forward a white paper on further devolution in England,” he said.
The battle lines are clearly being drawn for the forthcoming general election whenever that may be and it’s clear that infrastructure spending will take centre stage during that campaign. Claim and counter claim are certain to follow about all the parties’ plans but the fact that infrastructure is looking likely to be front and centre of political discourse of the coming weeks and months has to be a good thing for the construction sector and all those who work in it.