By Craig Melson, Consultant, London.
Yesterday saw a rare double appearance from the Prime Minister and Chancellor, as they pushed their infrastructure credentials before Parliament resumes. The £36bn in infrastructure spending isn’t new money and the vast amount comes from the private sector, but it’s an easy way to generate headlines, reaffirm the ‘long term economic plan’ message and show that the government is ‘getting things done’. However the question remains whether these tactics work, and how many voters can be swayed by politicians making grand announcements in hard hats? The Confederation of British Industry thinks the answer is a minimal number.
In a timely report called ‘Building Trust’ the CBI showed polling on the need for business and Government to do a better job of persuading voters of the benefits of infrastructure spending. The report finds that the “inability to garner grassroots support for major projects threatens the construction and upgrading of vitally important national infrastructure”. This should worry the Prime Minister and Chancellor, as they don unflattering personal protective equipment at major projects in the run up to the election.
The polling shows that voters are conservative and sceptical towards infrastructure, with the 65% of respondents agreeing with the statement ‘the public’s views need to be heard properly’ even if it meant delaying projects. Politicians of course have to balance their constituents’ views with the national good, though sometimes these are incompatible. Justine Greening was moved on from the DfT precisely because she could not represent her Putney constituents interests whilst being formally responsible for assessing what do about Heathrow.
All infrastructure projects will have opposition, primarily through affected local residents. HS2 has caused major trouble for the Conservatives, as the ‘North-South line’ (as it has been branded) runs through Tory heartlands. A consistent Labour Party could have made the opposition worse, however Labour peer Lord Adonis and Labour run city councils in the north of England have reduced Labour’s opposition to specific details like cost, as opposed to the wider project. There is also vast opposition to new energy plants, with politicians’ populist instincts threatening the construction of the power stations Britain needs, whether they are nuclear, shale, wind or other renewables.
Airport capacity is another example of this problem, with a co-ordinated campaign marshalling public opinion away from expanding Heathrow. This opposition and a misguided manifesto pledge has seen a vital decision outsourced to an inquiry and kicked in to the long grass, with the Airports Commission not due to make its final recommendations until after the General Election.
So what should Cameron and Osborne say to voters to bring voters round?
Firstly, they should galvanise the beneficiaries of infrastructure investment, to provide a counter narrative. We’re seeing evidence of this from local MPs in areas of the north which will benefit from HS2.
Secondly, they need to make their arguments local. The CBI report shows scepticism towards the economic benefits cited by Cameron and Osborne, so they need to showcase the local businesses that could win contracts, emphasise the ‘ripple effect’ and have an honest discussion about how disruption will be mitigated. This also has to happen during the early planning stages in order to prevent local people feeling ‘hoodwinked’.
Thirdly, they need to keep the tone of the debate frank, without scare-mongering around the negative consequences of not investing. This can engender scepticism amongst voters as we have seen with the so called super-sewer in London.
Some infrastructure projects outline their story well. The new London Gateway deep-water port in the Thames Estuary has transformed an area in need of regeneration from day one. Telecommunications projects provide other great examples, as (despite criticism of the rollout process), residents understand the tangible benefits of good mobile coverage and superfast broadband, with councillors more than obliged to be present when a cabinet is ‘switched on’. Despite the need for new street furniture, masts and streetworks, residents can be won over if they learn about what this infrastructure enables – a frustration free Internet with new online services online that creates wider economic and social benefits. Indeed today, we have seen the announcement of eight new renewable energy projects given approval by the Government, supported by well briefed local councillors, a Secretary of State on the airwaves and detailed information on the local and national benefits.
Government has to negotiate a tricky tightrope when managing large infrastructure projects. They need to engage early to allay the fears of voters around disruption whilst ensuring vital projects actually happen in a timeframe that satisfies the needs of industry and the national interest. This is a tough balance that Cameron and Osborne must be fully aware of, as they tour the country in their high-visibility jackets.