Party manifestos promise billion pound infrastructure spending spree

The general election manifestos for both Labour and the Tories promise multi-billion pound infrastructure investment plans that will be welcomed by the industry, says Jason Millett.

Until the party manifesto launches last week, we had barely heard about infrastructure this election cycle - the stark differences between party leaders and the overshadowing issue of Brexit have largely banished more nuanced discussion of infrastructure policy from the agenda.  

However, it’s come back with a bang. Labour’s manifesto has promised - amongst other things - £250bn of new infrastructure spending for the UK over the next ten years, should they prove victorious on 8 June and form the next government. 

The Conservative’s manifesto, published two days later, didn’t quite match Labour’s ambition, but did reference a new ‘National Productivity Investment Fund’, promising significant infrastructure investment; a total of £170bn by 2020. This figure, which covers housing, and research and development as well as economic infrastructure, was a strong response to the challenge thrown down by Labour. 

Whichever party you support, infrastructure is always a tricky election issue. Investment in good infrastructure is a long-term cycle that proves its worth over decades. It’s not well suited as a bargaining chip in a short election campaign. 

It’s also a complicated issue to contextualise for the average voter. The sums of money involved are vast, and the timelines of delivery are outside of most people’s lived experience. As a result it’s hard to make it feel real and as an industry we haven’t been as persuasive as we could have been in convincing people of the link between infrastructure and economic growth and productivity. 

As we in the sector know, in reality a Brexit election is an election about infrastructure. How we exit the European Union will make all the difference to the UK’s infrastructure pipeline and that in turn will influence whether we can make a success of going it alone. It will also have a direct impact on how easy it will be for the UK’s home-grown engineering and infrastructure firms to market their experience, skills and expertise internationally. 

From the polling, it certainly appears that Theresa May is in line to win a historic victory for the Conservative party. Hopefully, an increased Conservative majority will give her government renewed confidence in delivering projects that have proven controversial with certain parts of her party, such as a third runway at Heathrow and the delivery of HS2. 

It is also to be hoped that a stronger majority could make it more likely that May’s negotiations with our European neighbours over the rights of EU citizens are a success - which should prevent too high a proportion of our EU-born construction workforce leaving the country. Finally, we’d also like to see a big focus on infrastructure delivery and export coming through in the government’s emerging industrial strategy. 

Whoever forms the next government in June needs to understand that the delivery of good infrastructure is a precursor to good economic performance and they’ll need to explain that to the electorate. It’s likely that Brexit will be an expensive process, and the prioritisation and ring-fencing of infrastructure spending may be unpopular unless it is explained effectively. 

We also need to be careful to make sure that after the election spending is directed to promote regional growth as well as to support our capital. Economic uncertainty always has an uneven impact across the country and stronger regional infrastructure will help to protect areas that might otherwise suffer unduly. 

The reality is that infrastructure investment, when planned properly and delivered well, is never an extravagance. Without good infrastructure we can’t grow sustainably and now more than ever it’s important we lay the foundations for growth. Regardless of who ends up in Downing Street in June, it is to be hoped they recognise this and are prepared to work in partnership with the private sector to achieve it.

Jason Millett is chief operating officer for consultancy at Mace.