PM admits UK process 'frustrating'

David Cameron has admitted finding the process for infrastructure development in the UK "frustrating", as the Government said the value of projects in the pipeline was now worth £375 billion.

6e6e39de-5cec-11e3-b670-0a0c0223000020131204T152412
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander at the launch of the National Infrastructure Plan

David Cameron has admitted finding the process for infrastructure development in the UK "frustrating", as the Government said the value of projects in the pipeline was now worth £375 billion.

The Prime Minister, on a high-profile trade visit to China, acknowledged that the "important" systems of accountability in the UK meant projects took longer than in the fast-developing Asian superpower.

But Mr Cameron said he believed the British process could be accelerated and the Government had already implemented reforms to make decisions faster.

His comments came as the Treasury published its latest National Infrastructure Plan (Nip), which saw the value of projects announced increase from £309 billion to £375 billion.

Mr Cameron was asked whether he found the slow pace of decision-making on projects like the HS2 rail link frustrating when compared to the rapid construction in China.

He told Sky News: "It is frustrating sometimes that we can't do things faster in Britain but we have a planning system, we have democratic accountability for that planning system, we have a need for everyone to have their say and make their point.

"That's very important in the British system.

"I think we can keep that system and that democracy but at the same time accelerate things and make them go faster.

"If you look at what this Government's done in terms of planning policy, decisions are now being taken faster, including on major infrastructure projects."

Launching the Nip, Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander confirmed that plans for the country's first road tolling scheme in a decade on the A14 had been dropped and there were no further plans to charge motorists on other schemes.

Setting out the roads projects in the Nip, Mr Alexander said: "We don't have proposals for tolls on any of the other projects that we have set out.

"In June, I set out a £100 billion plan for investment in infrastructure, tens of billions of which was funding the roads programme we have set out.

"So that is not part of our plans going forward."

The Government is poised to sell its 40% stake in Eurostar as part of a plan to privatise £20 billion of financial and corporate assets by 2020, Mr Alexander said.

Other measures announced included:

  • A further £50 million to be allocated to redevelop the railway station at Gatwick Airport;
  • An in principle agreement for a Government guarantee to support finance for the development of a new nuclear power station at Wylfa on Anglesey;
  • £30 million to support the construction of a new garden bridge across the Thames in London;
  • The £1 billion Northern Line extension to Battersea in south-west London to be given a Government guarantee;
  • Funding for improvements to the A50 around Uttoxeter in Staffordshire to start no later than 2015/16;
  • A £10 million competitive fund to open in early 2014 to test ways to deliver superfast broadband to remote areas of the UK.

At the launch of the Nip in Westminster, the Liberal Democrat minister said: "This plan is a blueprint for Britain from which we will literally build the foundations of our future prosperity."

The Nip identifies the "top 40" most important projects, which will benefit from special consideration in the planning system and the UK guarantee scheme.

The judicial review system will be reformed to tackle the problem of legal hold-ups for infrastructure projects.

Ministers were given a boost after leading insurers announced plans to invest £25 billion in UK infrastructure over the next five years, although the projects they back may not include only those earmarked by the Government.

The decision by insurers Legal and General, Prudential, Aviva, Standard Life, Friends Life and Scottish Widows to invest in infrastructure follows changes in European rules pushed for by the UK which incentivise investment in a wider range of assets.

But the plan does not address one of the key infrastructure problems facing the country - the squeeze on aviation capacity in the South East of England.

The interim results of Sir Howard Davies' review on the issue will be published later this month but the final report will not be produced until after the 2015 election.

Mr Alexander said: "There have been differences of opinion on airport expansion.

"That's why we asked Howard Davies to produce his report.

"I'm not going to get into what he might say because he will have to produce his own interim report in due course and then his final report.

"But it comes from a recognition that there is a clear issue here for developing the infrastructure of our country in future - all parties recognise that - but having Howard Davies as an independent expert to consider all the issues is the right way to go about that."

On the issue of whether a new runway should be built at Heathrow, Mr Cameron said: "I'm confident on aviation that the Howard Davies process will lead to an answer which I hope all parties can take up and we can take this issue out of party politics."

The Institute of Directors' chief economist Graeme Leach said: " It's unfortunate that while all political parties recognise the importance of renewing our creaking infrastructure, it often takes too long for businesses to see the benefit of these plans on the ground.

"The projects that do go ahead are too often slowed down by bureaucracy, and questions remain over the level of political will to see them through.

"The Government has made useful progress in some areas and is right to make the best use of its assets in the short-term. Sensible investment in transport and energy can bring returns which justify the spending. In the long-term, government should shift funds from everyday spending to productive infrastructure."

He said the issue of airport capacity was a "case study in political short-termism" and the access improvements announced " aren't going to solve Britain's urgent capacity crunch".

As well as the £50 million for Gatwick's railway station, which Mr Alexander acknowledged "hardly provides the best first impression of Britain" currently, studies would be commissioned to explore rail and road improvements for Heathrow and Stansted following a recommendation from Sir Howard about improving access.

In the Commons shadow chief secretary Chris Leslie d escribed the announcement as "the return of omnishambles" and told MPs the capital infrastructure budget for 2015 was being cut in real terms by 1.7%.

He claimed the Government had wasted three years and £200 million "faffing around" on the A14 project before announcing it would not be a toll road.

He said the coalition had cut flood defences and had investors "tearing their hair out" over the stop-start approach to green policy.

"This is a Treasury who have neglected the fundamentals we need for an economic recovery that's built to last. For all the hype, for all the hot air, and for all those press releases, we're left with a shambolic infrastructure programme and cuts in their infrastructure plans," he said.