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Does the UK lack ambition to build infrastructure?

UK lacks ambition to upgrade infrastructure

The various governments across the UK seemingly lack ambition to build out the country’s infrastructure, as Jordan O’Brien explores. 

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland may be formally united, but political divisions could not be more obvious. In each of the four nations that make up the UK, you’ll find a different political party with different views on the future of the country, whether it’s the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales, the uneasy coalition of Sinn Fein and the DUP in Northern Ireland, or the Conservative Government in Westminster. 

However one thing most political parties have in common these days appears to be indecision and a severe lack of ambition. This is most pronounced when looking at the country’s inability to build much of anything without dithering, delaying and cost overruns – whether it’s housing, a third runway at Heathrow, new train lines, or a nuclear power station. 

The UK kickstarted the global industrial revolution, creating world-class transport links, inventing brand new machinery and supercharging the country’s economy. However, since then, it appears that we have been resting on our laurels, and have easily been overtaken in terms of infrastructure by other countries around the world. 

Our Victorian-era railway network is beyond overdue for an overhaul, but rather than creating the network of tomorrow, Network Rail has privately admitted that it doesn’t even have enough money to run the system at the current standard – which is to say, if you think things are bad now, they’re likely to get worse. 

The UK Government had an opportunity to create a brand-new line in the form of HS2, built to modern standards and offering extra capacity and a speed boost for those travelling between London and the North. Instead, it’s decided to scrap the majority of the project, with just a shuttle service between London and Birmingham now planned – and its extension to central London isn’t even guaranteed. 

Meanwhile, you have a likely Labour Government in waiting, and while many will be hoping for a radical change, it seems like we’ll continue to have indecision and a lack of bold plans under Starmer. While the Labour Leader has promised to “unleash the big build”, don’t expect too much. 

In February, the Labour Party cut its green investment pledges by half, from £28 billion to less than £15 billion. That could severely hamper the UK’s path to net zero, and once again is emblematic of the UK’s failure to face its challenges boldly and instead defer to the rest of the world to lead. 

Granted, the world is currently focused on a war in Ukraine and Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, but while there have been demands for the Government to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, where is the demand for an increase in infrastructure spending? 

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the UK is estimated to spend just 1.8% of its GDP on infrastructure between 2016-2040, the fifth lowest of any G20 country. Meanwhile, Australia is set to spend double that of the UK, while China is set to reach 5.1% of its GDP – and these figures are when you take into account both public and private spending on infrastructure. 

If you want to grow an economy, you need the infrastructure to support it, but it seems that here at home, decisions are made for the near-term to meet the political will of the day, rather than the long-term. So, maybe a name change for the country is in order, from here on out, we should be known as the Short-sighted Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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