Labour’s manifesto reads like a construction industry checklist of projects it wants to see built – it’s a pity that a wishlist is all it adds up to.
Even if Jeremy Corbyn were to pull off what would be an astonishing upset and take power in next month’s general election, the questions would only intensify on how Labour’s £250bn infrastructure splurge would work.
In the rail sector alone, the Labour manifesto commits to extending HS2 to Scotland, to delivering Crossail 2, but also a Crossrail of the North (connecting Newcastle and Manchester) and a new Brighton Main Line.
That’s on top of investing in “rail electrification and expansion across the whole country”, transforming the UK’s energy systems through investment in gas and renewables, and continuing to “upgrade our highways and improve roadworks”.
This £250bn infrastructure spending would be spread over two parliamentary terms. Although there are no clear timeframes for when Labour would start work on these projects, let’s assume that much of this spending would be carried out within the next decade.
That means finding more than £100bn for new rail projects alone at a time when airport expansion, nuclear power and housing are among expenditure priorities, not to mention broadband, the NHS or the estimated £13bn spend the National Audit Office says is required to bring England’s schools up to a “good standard”.
All of Labour’s spending commitments show a clear party commitment to infrastructure spending as a necessity, not an option, which is welcome.
But how can all this spending be achieved under a Labour leader who has campaigned against the “toxic burden” of the PFI, and wants to nationalise rather than privatise as a general rule (the manifesto pledges to scrap tolls on the Severn Bridge and have forests, prisons, care services and railways in national hands)?
Politicians also need to be more aware of the implications of project start times. While Labour’s Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region mayors were this week demanding rail improvements between Liverpool and Manchester before Crossrail 2, Turner & Townsend was publishing research which showed the North of England will see the highest rate of construction cost hikes outside London in the next year.
T&T says competition will decrease and cost inflation will hit 3.6 per cent in the North in 2017/18, up from 2.9 per cent the previous year.
Cost inflation is currently at a near decade-long high in the construction industry, meaning publicly funded schemes are already struggling to keep on top of budgets.
Until the UK’s political leaders figure out how they will fund projects and when they will start, party manifestos represent little more than lip service to the critical infrastructure deficiencies threatening to engulf the UK.