Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this vital debate, because the Government are putting their money where their mouth is—long gone are the days of make do and mend. I have, dare I say it, a 12-year-old British-built, Japanese-designed Toyota that has done 199,000 miles. It deserves credit for lasting, but I am sure that with a newer model—which this Bill will be encouraging across the country—I would be using less oil and petrol. The point is that we need to get more bang for our buck when the Government spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Sadly, there were too many examples of the previous Government’s seeming to throw money away without getting value for that money. Even Stephen Twigg, as reported by The Guardian in July 2012, suggested that they wasted money on school buildings—he did not regret that the buildings were built, I appreciate, but suggested that they got poor value for money. There was outcry initially, at the beginning of this Parliament, over the reduction in the amount of money available for Building Schools for the Future, but actually it was right to tell industry that we needed better value for money. For a scheme in my constituency, we had to go back to persuade the Government, and instead of the £31 million blank cheque—we should remember that at the start of this Parliament we were told that there was no money left—we managed to get a cheque for £18 million, and there will still be a good academy building built in my constituency. I consider that better value for money.
One of the biggest white elephants was probably the road sign project along the A14, signed off not long before the election and on which £70 million was spent. For a couple of years, there were no messages at all, and about three months ahead of the Olympics, one of the most helpful messages was still, “Plan your Journey Early for the Olympics”. It felt like a complete waste of money. It was probably symptomatic of a conversation I had with a senior Government adviser not long after the election, when he suggested that the best thing the Government could do was pay one lot of people to dig holes in the road, and pay another firm to refill them. Those were the exact words of the head of a senior government agency. I thought, “Oh my word, if that’s been the attitude and the level of desperation so far, no wonder we’re in this mess.”
The Bill is a great opportunity to consider areas where the Government are keen to develop infrastructure. One is telecoms. I am sure that everybody welcomes the money that the Government are giving to broadband in rural areas and for super-connected cities. I know that there are still one or two problems with state aid that the Government are working hard to solve, but it is vital that everybody in the country is connected to a good speed network, if not a superfast network, because it will help to diversify jobs and enable people to work from home. Every part of the country must be connected. That could help not only with wealth and job creation but with public service reform by enabling better value for money in the delivery of public services. That is something we all need to do.
I am conscious that the A143 in Suffolk, which is not in my constituency but which is still an important artery, is one of the roads nominated for improved mobile coverage. It is vital that we roll out that programme. The roll-out of 2G masts will also benefit 4G coverage, on which we need to keep pressing Ofcom to ensure that the auction goes ahead as soon as possible. I give credit to other telecoms operators that have already started to use their research and development to ensure that 4G can start to be rolled out on existing frequencies, and to Ofcom for allowing that to happen, despite the law suits that could have been launched because it was perceived to be unfair. It is right that every barrier to innovation in the use of infrastructure be removed.
In their update to the national infrastructure plan, the Government rightly refer to the preparations at Hinkley C. As a result of that work, a significant chunk of change has already been spent in the north Somerset economy. I hope that the same will follow in my constituency at Sizewell. I ask, however, that all Departments work together—I asked my right hon. Friend the Chancellor this the other day—and strain every sinew to enable these investment decisions by our partners, including EDF and others, and ensure that they can go ahead with certainty in respect of the next stages of development of nuclear power stations. I have not looked at the other projects, but I draw the attention of the House to the inquiry by the all-party group on off-gas grid that is about to be launched. At the moment, we are still not connecting enough people to the mains gas grid. Perhaps we should consider that as part of our inquiry in providing the Government with ideas.
I know that my hon. Friend Priti Patel will speak adroitly about rail. There is no question but that we need to invest in the infrastructure of the east of England, which we all believe has the opportunity to become the California of Europe, with its diverse economic centres, its focus on research and development, innovation, manufacturing and software, and its position as a key link to London. One of the things that the Government have to do—I am sure that they will under the new Transport Secretary—is continue the journey towards how we reduce costs. Rail desperately needs to be done in a cheaper way. I do not have the time to tell a story about the amount of time and cost involved when three MPs tried to be part of the ground-digging at a platform with our county councillors. It was all done in the interests of safety when common sense would have dictated otherwise for something that should have been as simple as walking along a pavement.
There are orders for rolling stock and other franchises, and we want to see some of that on the great eastern main line.
The A14 is a critical road connecting the midlands to the east of England. I know that the Government have been considering different options, but I would offer a word of caution. I do not think that many Conservative Members of Parliament are opposed to tolling for new capacity, but I am concerned, because we do not want the people of the east of England to end up as the sole pilots if those in other ports or key infrastructure areas throughout the country are not subject to potential tolling in the future. It is not just about the port of Felixstowe, in which Hutchison Whampoa has invested a lot of money, creating the deepest berths in the country and taking the biggest boats from around the world, but about ensuring that there is a level playing field when we introduce the plans, which I hope the Secretary of State will announce before the end of the year.
It is key that money is spent on assets that will be used. That may seem like a ridiculous thing to say and I may be a lonely voice, but business people regularly complain to me about empty property rates. I have been trying to persuade the Government that they should put their scarce resources—while allowing for some time to find new tenants—into assets that generate wealth, not assets that are sitting empty and not producing. That is a key point.
One of the most inspired decisions of the Government reshuffle was the appointment of Paul Deighton, the chief executive of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games who presided over the great delivery of the Olympics and Paralympics, of which we are all proud. He is certainly not a bulldozer—I see him as a bridge builder—but I notice that he has been given a remit to do whatever it takes to clear away not the cobwebs but the barriers, in order to make sure that the national infrastructure plan is delivered. The Government may also wish to take note of his friend, Sir John Armitt, the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which built the infrastructure that put in place as many small projects as possible, not just the big games in town. On that note, I am delighted to support the Bill’s Second Reading.