A growing number of commentators are identifying infrastructure as the key to reviving the UK’s flagging economy. And for good reason, there is well-established evidence that spending on infrastructure offers one of the best returns on public investment.
During construction, infrastructure generates economic activity. Once complete, it can provide a wide range of benefits from a more mobile workforce and better access to export markets to making the UK a more attractive place for inward investment.
However, if the government wants to make investment in infrastructure the centrepiece of a renewed drive for growth, it needs to look beyond the headlines and received wisdom.
Anybody following the media debate might be forgiven for thinking that the only two infrastructure issues of any consequence are the heated debates about the need for more airport runway capacity in the South East and a bigger high speed rail network.
Whilst these are undoubtedly important issues for UK plc, it is far from clear that they are necessarily the most important ones from a growth perspective. Especially if a quick shot in the arm for the economy is the goal. Both focus primarily on passenger, rather than freight, issues and either would be highly unlikely to start much this side of 2020.
But for manufacturing, which is well-positioned to provide the export and investment led growth that our economy desperately needs, issues such as the state of the UK’s road network are of at least equal importance.
Roads are fundamental to manufacturers’ ability to do business day in, day out. For most, the network is vital to accessing raw material, markets and the wider transport network. There’s little point, for example, in building a shiny new airport to the east of London if it’s not easily accessible by road.
In addition, many road improvement and maintenance projects can be got up and running relatively quickly and offer some of the best returns on investment. This makes them genuine candidates for economic stimulus measures.
If kick starting the economy whilst keeping to a tight budget is the objective, the government needs to focus its efforts on those infrastructure projects that can be implemented quickly and that offer the best returns on taxpayers’ money. This means paying as much attention to the state of our roads as it does to more glamorous issues such as new airports and high speed rail lines.