Despite the ink being barely dry on the Coalition’s Growth and Infrastructure Act, the latest Queen’s Speech has produced yet another Bill to reform our planning regime and promote infrastructure.
“It’s like déjà vu all over again”, as someone once said, and as I pointed out in my response during the subsequent debate on the speech, the proposed legislation only serves to highlight the fact that David Cameron’s government has failed to meet the infrastructure challenges facing our country.
The opening clauses of the new Bill alter how our strategic road networks are supervised, allowing for the setting up of arms-length strategic highways companies. If this allows for more long-term planning and more efficient working it may be useful; however, the Coalition’s non-delivery in this vital area is summed up by the extraordinary saga of the A14.
The upgrade of the A14 — a vital growth corridor from the east coast ports to the Midlands — was shovel-ready in 2010, when Labour left office. One of the first acts of the new government was to cancel the project, along with a string of other major transport schemes. Two years later, Ministers tried to resuscitate the A14 as a toll road, complete with magic money. That scheme collapsed and last year, finally, the Coalition said that the A14 would go ahead on its original plan. So a vital major trunk scheme, which might have been finished by now, is not even remotely close to starting. Indeed, a very large number of the schemes that Lord Deighton, my opposite number, mentioned in his remarks when opening the Queen’s Speech debate were simply the resuscitation of schemes cancelled in 2010.
The new Bill also contains measures allowing for the setting up of community electricity rights. Again this could be a positive step, but Ministers have still failed to take the requisite action to reform the energy markets. The average dual gas and electricity bill is now at a record £1,353, up from £819 in 2009. Over the four years to October 2013, gas prices increased by 21% and electricity by 25%. The Office for National Statistics estimates that the share of household income going on essentials has risen by 10% since 2003 – a huge burden on family budgets already feeling the squeeze. The lack of an effective energy market is not just our contention. Since Ed Miliband put this issue up in lights, it has become the government’s and the regulator’s contention too.
The Bill also once again alters planning law, presumably to try and increase housebuilding – now at its lowest peacetime level since the 1920s. Due to a serious construction skills shortage and to private sector land-banking, barely half of the 200,000 new homes a year now required are being built nationally; including less than a third of the 60,000 a year needed in London. The Coalition has done far too little to tackle these problems. Three years ago, David Cameron said he wanted to see new garden cities. So far, only one has been announced – in Ebbsfleet, which already had planning permission for 10,000 homes.
The government has given no indication it understands the scale of the challenges we as a country face. Yes, there is finally some growth. But far more needs to be done to tackle youth unemployment and underemployment, and to construct the homes, infrastructure and energy and transport systems that Britain needs to thrive. In the weeks and months ahead, Labour Peers will introduce amendments to the new Bill that will help do this, or at least prepare the ground for a government that is ready to meet those challenges head on.
Lord Andrew Adonis is Shadow Infrastructure Minister in the House of Lords, and is leading the ‘Adonis Growth Review’, jointly supported by the IPPR and Policy Network. This post first appeared at the Labour Lords blog.