PM promises “Rooseveltian approach” to UK infrastructure delivery

As the UK continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, UK prime minister Boris Johnson will give a speech in the Midlands later today (30.6.20) on his plans for a massive infrastructure spending programme to boost the economy, create jobs and help the country to recover from the crisis.

Johnson’s speech has been widely trailed in the press, with media reports over the weekend and since predicting that billions of pounds will be spent to rescue the economy in the face of what Johnson described as the looming “thunderclap of economic consequences” of Covid-19. In a signal of intent, the PM tweeted “We want to build our way back to health”.

Promising the country that there would be no return to austerity in the face of an economic contraction in the wake of the Covid crisis, Johnson said that his government would oversee the building of new schools, hospitals and homes, ensure that infrastructure projects are completed and employment created for people whose jobs might disappear as a result of the predicted economic difficulties.

Speaking at the weekend, Johnson announced the creation of a new “Project Speed” taskforce, led by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, will get Britain building by fast-tracking his party's election pledges to invest £250bn in infrastructure and deliver key projects faster. How precisely this will be done is yet to be outlined in detail and the construction industry will no doubt be listening to his speech with interest to see what he says in that regard.

Speaking to Times Radio on 29 June 2020, prime minister Johnson promised a “Rooseveltian approach to the UK”, referencing the former US president’s massive programme of public works in the 1930s under the  New Deal policy which boosted the post-Depression US economy. “We really want to build back better, to do things differently, to invest in infrastructure, transport, broadband - you name it,” said Johnson.

Initially, Johnson is expected to bring forward plans to spend £5bn on infrastructure projects. Included in this £5bn plan are: -

  • £1.5bn for hospital maintenance, enabling hospital building and improving A&E capacity
  • £100m for 29 road network projects including bridge repairs in Sandwell and improving the A15 in the Humber region
  • £900m for "shovel ready" local projects in England this year and in 2021
  • £500,000 - £1m for each area in the towns fund to spend on improvements to parks, high street and transport
  • Over £1bn to fund a schools building project
  • £83m for maintenance of prisons and youth offender facilities and £60m for temporary prison places.

The government is also expected to bring forward funding to speed up infrastructure projects in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Commenting on the PM’s pledges, National Infrastructure Commission chair Sir John Armitt said that in order to speed up project delivery the government and ministers would have to be clear about they want, “create a collaborative environment amongst all those who will enable delivery, fix the budget, don’t change what you want and provide strong leadership”.  

Armitt said that delivery would require a particular focus and that it would be essential for there to be clear guidance from those making the decisions and look to achieve political consensus about the long-term priorities facing the nation. “Having had a really good debate and deciding on what they are going to do government should make sure that it sticks to that policy and don’t keep flip-flopping backwards and forwards because that reduces the confidence that people have to invest in the economy.

“Spending on infrastructure is one good way to get the economy going. There are lots of green things that we can go forward with and the private sector wants to invest in onshore and offshore wind, we need better broadband and an EV charging network and clear support and direction from government will enable the private sector as well as the public sector to invest and we can get the economy moving and most importantly of all we can get people back to work.”

Speaking ahead of Johnson's speech, Labour leader Keir Starmer said that the prime minister needed to plot a route to recovery that works for the whole of Britain. "For much of the country, the Tories’ record on building and investment has been a lost decade," said Starmer. "Much-hyped plans such as the Starter Homes initiative – which built zero houses despite having £2.3 billion allocated to it – barely even made it beyond the press release. It’s been talk, talk, talk rather than build, build, build, he said.

“Our recovery from the coronavirus crisis needs to match the scale of the challenge. It must be built on solid foundations. It has to work for the whole country and end the deep injustices across the country," said the Labour leader.

The government is expected to publish its long-awaited and updated National Infrastructure Strategy in the autumn and already some in the business and construction sector are calling for it to give all firms a chance of winning work, especially SMEs. Federation of Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry described the prime minister's infrastructure announcements as "encouraging" but said it was vital that small businesses were not "locked out of the ambition to build... because of cumbersome public sector procurement rules".

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