Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill
Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West, Labour)
I am pleased to follow James Morris, a fellow west midlands MP who sits on the other side of the House. I did not, however, agree with much of what he said, and certainly not about the Government’s great success in reducing borrowing. Figures from the last quarter of this year show that £6.9 billion more was borrowed than in the previous quarter. However, now is not the time to go into such matters.
Although we could question the need for this Bill, its focus is rightly on increasing infrastructure expenditure in the UK. I do not, therefore, want to enter into the rather arcane and intricate argument about whether housing is infrastructure investment. The point was made in a nutshell when it was said that after the war, there used to be competition between the parties over who could build more houses. I do not like to admit it, but I think Harold Macmillan showed the way by building 300,000 houses in one year. He found a way round the problems that the present Prime Minister seems unable to get over—of course, that building was coupled with a boost to the economy, increased spending power and confidence. Once a house is built, it still needs to be sold and people still need to buy it. That point was raised by my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins who has just left the Chamber. As he said, if we want successful infrastructure, we need demand in the economy.
It strikes me that this Government are one of the most incompetent in delivering their plans. They announce and reannounce plans again and again, yet they get nowhere. We need only to look at what the Prime Minister has repeatedly said and what the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce thinks about that. As far as I am aware, the director general is
not a political fan of the Labour party, yet he has called the national infrastructure plan “hot air” and “a complete fiction.”
I remember the Prime Minister saying in this House that there is nothing wrong with the Government machine or the way they are organised, and that they must say what they want and make sure they get it. He has been saying that for a long time, but the situation gets worse and worse. He repeated that point recently, but we know that the more the Government repeat things, the more desperate they get. Now they have presented this plan for guarantees. Strictly speaking, we do not need such guarantees, but they are a sign that the Government want to do something and I would be the last person to stop that. Nevertheless, they are not doing anything yet; they are providing guarantees that could be there if needed.
Let us look at the national infrastructure plan. It is dedicated to projects of national significance that are critical for growth. How many projects in that plan have the Government delivered? Fewer than 20% ever saw the light of day. The Government are still asking businesses, “Where is the project? Where are the diggers?” but, of course, they are not there yet.
I hope we can manage to get some useful infrastructure projects under way, and I want to make two points. The first concerns a project that I am greatly in favour of, and the other a scheme I would like the Government to drop—HS2. I know that HS2 was begun by the Labour party; it is a bright idea, a lovely, high-profile project and all the rest, but it is simply not value for money. The Treasury must look at the return on it, which has gone from over £2 for every £1 spent, to £0.90—below the established Treasury allowance for a return on a capital project. It is not as if HS2 is a small capital project; it costs £17 billion for a line that will go from London to Birmingham—no further—and shave quarter of an hour off the time. With improvements to our national railway, we could get that journey down to an hour by having four tracks between Coventry—my own city that I am proud to represent—and Birmingham. That would take 10 minutes off the journey time, and eliminate many causes of delay. HS2 will cost a huge amount of money for an elitist project that will go up and down an already well-established corridor. Other reasons for and ways of dealing with the situation are much cheaper and involve a much better cost-benefit ratio.
Why are the Government going ahead with HS2? I do not understand. The Treasury has warned people, yet the Bill contains a guarantee of £50 billion and will allow £17 billion for HS2. No guarantee is needed—nothing at all—and the cost-benefit ratio has gone down and down. One can imagine what the Government have had to do just to maintain that ratio—they could not even keep it at £1 and it has reduced to £0.90. I hope that the Government will reconsider HS2 and put their foot down. After all, the Treasury should be the guarantor not only of how much we spend or the balance of spending, but for the return on that spending. The HS2 project does not stand up on any of those grounds.
The Prime Minister might be happy because he thought there was cross-party support for HS2. However, so much has he lost his self-confidence and the guts for the battle, he is prepared to commit to something only when he can has cross-party support. Until there is cross-party support on Heathrow, he does not want to
do anything. What has happened to this man? He has lost it; he has lost his bottle. Does he expect Opposition Members to come along and bail him out after what he has said about us and others? I do not get it. What world is he living in? I will not be part of that.
The Prime Minister does not want to face up to Heathrow. He says that we will discuss the issue in 2016-17—despite the urgent need to do so now—because he has not got cross-party support. He is steaming ahead—perhaps racing ahead is the right word for aircraft—with the one issue on which he has got cross-party support and about which he can do something. He can be seen to be acting by saying, “Oh, we’re fully committed to that.” I think it is pathetic. The trouble with the Government is that they never had competence and they have now lost their confidence. By introducing a Bill that we do not strictly need, they are—more intensively than ever before—trying to give the impression that they are doing something. I am sure that the Bill will be quite embarrassing for the mandarins at the Treasury. I cannot describe the problems that the Labour Government had to get one small, £2 billion guarantee not counted in their borrowing figures—although we should have counted it.
I am pleased to have spoken in this debate. We should press ahead with Heathrow. Even though I know that it is unpopular, the Government should have the courage of their convictions. I believe that we should stop HS2. Many projects are ready to go, and hon. Members cannot understand why they are still on the drawing board—or just off it—or have been discarded. This is a Government of shambles and without the conviction or the drive to remain in charge of the country.