Kicking our legs away

October 1, 2017 0 Comments

In the Gwent Levels

‘Infrastructure’ is a Latinate word almost designed to put you to sleep.  But it stands for something that’s crucial to us all.  Spending on infrastructure – sewage systems, transport links, reservoirs, electricity generation, broadband networks and the rest – is critical to how any successful economy and society operates.  The right infrastructure provides the sturdy legs that support everything that moves in the rest of the national body.

Wales, as most people know, has one of the weakest economies in western Europe.  Its infrastructure is none too developed either.  And now there’s a grave danger that the chances of improving it are fast diminishing.

Money for infrastructure comes from three main sources: the Westminster government, the Welsh government and the European Union (the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund).  It would be nice to be able to add a fourth, the private sector, but most British companies are notoriously averse to serious long-term investment (BT and its competitors being excellent examples in the case of broadband, and Arriva in the case of trains).


The bad news starts with Westminster.  The UK government is notoriously unbalanced in the way it allocates infrastructure expenditure and makes decisions on capital projects.  London and south-east England swallow a huge proportion of the cake, with the other nations and English regions receiving much less.  A single London project, Crossrail, will cost well over £15bn (more than the cost of all infrastructure projects in the north of England), while railways in Wales struggle on with clapped-out track, antiquated rolling stock and little prospect of improvement.  (Crossrail 2 is now being touted, even before Crossrail 1 is complete, as if the £31bn it will cost just needs a quick shake of the ‘magic money tree’.)   Now we know that the solemnly promised electrified line from London to Swansea will end abruptly at Cardiff.  And the government shows every sign of refusing to authorise the widely supported Swansea Tidal Lagoon project, a pilot that could lead to bigger schemes around the Welsh coast and generate reliable green power for decades to come.

The Welsh Government has agreed to establish a National Infrastructure Commission to give guidance on future infrastructure spending in Wales.  Not before time, maybe, because the Welsh Government’s actual record of decisions on big capital spending leaves a lot to be desired.  Its biggest current project by far is the M4 relief road (very conservative estimate of its cost: £1.1bn).  The road’s preferred course, the aptly named Black Route, will make an ugly, irreparable tear through one of the rarest and most valuable habitats in the country, the Gwent Levels.  Alas, the rare Shrill Carder Bee has no defence against the forward march of business.   It’s a decision that mocks the Assembly’s claims for Wales as a sustainable and environmentally responsible country, not to speak of the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations of Wales Act.

Whether it’s wise to build 14 massively expensive miles of a motorway in south-east Wales at all is debatable.  Apart from the environmental arguments against encouraging pollution and congestion, the road will further privilege the Cardiff area as the dominant economic centre of Wales, aping the malign role of London in Britain.  It inevitably deprives less developed areas of Wales of much needed capital expenditure, for example to improve the laughably bad transport links between north and south Wales.

The third stream of support, the structural funds of the European Union, will presumably come to an end in 2021 at the latest.  I suspect few people realise that the EU provides the only meaningful example in Britain of regional economic policy – the deliberate transfer of wealth from rich to poor areas to make up for infrastructural inequalities.  (Long ago the UK used to have a regional policy of its own, but triumphal neo-liberalism leaves no room for such socialistic doctrine; these days, as Crossrail shows, funds flow in the opposite direction.)  Maybe it’s been a badge of shame for most of Wales to have been labelled an ‘Objective One’ or ‘Convergence’ region for so many years, and maybe not all EU monies (over £2bn in the current round) have been spent as wisely as they might, but it’s undeniable that Wales has benefitted from the structural funds.  Without them we’d have no Swansea University Bay Campus, no Heads of the Valleys road improvements, no town centre revivals, no flood management schemes, no Wales Coast Path.

And after 2019?  Brexiters, blind to any kind of reality, no doubt assume that the money saved from our contributions to the EU will in future be used for the same purposes and on the same pattern as now; ‘structural funds’, renamed, will continue to flow to Wales.  That seems very unlikely, to judge by the UK government’s behaviour in making its own decisions on infrastructure investment (see above).  More likely, we’ll just become poorer.

Swansea Tidal Lagoon

My own recollection of trying to gather funds for large capital projects – well, large on the modest scale of cultural institutions – is that it took a hard, prolonged effort to stitch together enough funding packages from government, EU, Lottery and private sources to make a serious difference.  As each of those sources begins to dry up it will be much more difficult to achieve similar results in future.

A declining infrastructure and a declining investment in infrastructure don’t make for a happy prospect.  If you add a similar poor prospect for the future of investing in ‘soft infrastructure’ – things like the skills  of future workers – and the never-ending ‘austerity’ affecting recurrent public spending on health, education and other services, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the Welsh economy – unless there’s a fundamental change of heart and policy about economic justice.

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