Is Britain Capable of Delivering Hundreds of Billions of Pounds worth of Infrastructure Spend?

Credited with writing the first English dictionary (and married at St Werburgh’s in Derby of course) one of Samuel Johnson’s most quoted quips is that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

A contemporary version of the same sentiment could be that “infrastructure is the first refuge of a chancellor.”

The promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ has always been central to political discourse as there is nothing easier than painting a bright vision of epoch-changing projects, to be funded and delivered by someone else, in another time, far, far away.

The last two occupants of 11 Downing Street were past masters; Gordon Brown loved to pull giant rabbits out of massive hats and nothing thrilled George Osborne more than wearing a hi-vis vest and safety goggles.

The past month has seen current incumbent, Philip Hammond, join the club, recently announcing a clutch of grand projects - HS2, Hinkley Point, Heathrow third runway and that grand dame of infrastructure, housing.

OK, I know we have heard it all before – Heathrow’s expansion was first debated in Parliament an astonishing 60-years ago, Hinkley Point promised we would be cooking our turkeys on its power this Christmas, HS2 seems to be re-announced every few months and housing is our hardy national infrastructure perennial.

Still, there is nothing wrong with any of these – depending on your view of aviation, nuclear power, trains and greenfield development of course – but surely it would be good to see something finally happen.

My question is any of it likely? Do we have either the capacity or capability to deliver?

Opposition to all the projects above is pretty constant and interest groups appear to be able to sprinkle queries, doubts and blocks all over their purpose, funding or construction.

I heard opposition to the growth of Heathrow being expressed based on predicted air pollution measures in west London in 2050.

We all know the story of the difficulties of improving a roundabout on the A38 in Little Eaton, due to the relocation of a family white-clawed crayfish.

There was time when Britain ruled the infrastructure world, truly being number one, as the legacy of 19th century bridges, tunnels and stations stands evidence.

Last week, I was reminded of this arriving in Bristol at the wonderful Temple Meads station, designed by one of infrastructure’s true superstars, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Proudly announced and badged as a High Speed Train, the journey felt anything like, averaging a turgid 56mph between Derby and Bristol.

Passengers who had pre-booked (and so had to sit in pre-allocated seats) were herded into a single carriage where the electronic seat notices were not working. Needless to say, adjacent carriages remained empty where the electronic seat notices were working.

Oh, and of course, despite the train trundling all the way from Edinburgh to Plymouth, there was no buffet available.

The other week I caught a real High Speed Train, in China, which went twice the distance in the same time, averaging 112mph. Oh, and there was a buffet.

I welcome the £23billion included in the autumn statement for infrastructure investment, I really do, but I question how much of this will see light of day?

If delivered, public sector net investment will still only stand at 2.3% of GDP, half of what it has been in the past.

If the Chancellor and the Office for Budget Responsibility are correct, then in the post-Brexit world we really will need to change our culture of planning and delivery.

UK plc will have to pull its socks up, liberate today’s Brunel’s and rediscover a taste for delivery.