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Unsexy perhaps, but deadly serious - the Coalition must not fail on infrastructure

By Mark Wallace
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Growth ConHomeInfrastructure is never going to be the sexiest part of the deeply unsexy field which is public policy. But it is just about the most important - if it goes wrong. 

There are few rewards given to politicians who get our transport, digital and energy systems right. In the short term, they are bashed over the head by pressure groups and people who don't like planned developments in their neighbourhood. If things go well, then the economic benefits take sufficiently long to become clear, and are so wide-ranging, that the ministers who made the right decisions in the first place rarely get the credit they deserve.

If these systems break down, or go over budget, though, there is immediate hell to pay. Power cuts, unaffordable energy, rail delays, endless traffic jams - few things make the electorate more furious, understandably.

So the Government must not ignore today's infrastructure headlines.

There's some good news - the Hinkley Point nuclear power project is apparently back on track, having been thought lost forever in the mire of subsidy negotiations. That will help to fill the long term energy gap that hangs over the nation, though at a not inconsiderable cost to the taxpayer.

But the rest of the coverage makes for pretty grim reading.

The Whitehall watchdog that scruitinises major public initiatives has found that of the Coalitions 191 large budget projects, 32 are either in trouble or potentially unachievable. This spells trouble for a wide range of ministers - aircraft carriers and IDS' welfare reforms are among the areas hghlighted - but it is the infrastructure works that should draw the most concern.

For example, having gone through painful, public battles over HS2, and lost votes on the backbenches and around the country as a result, it would be doubly painful for the Prime Minister if HS2 now fails in practice. Many have concerns about the scheme, myself included, but if it is going to be done, we should at least ensure it is done properly.

Shelling out a huge amount of taxpayers' money and a large lump of political capital is only worth it if the scheme actually makes a difference to people's lives. If not: bang bang, the sound of the Government shooting itself in both feet.

The looming energy crisis also spells danger for the Coalition. According to the Crown Estate, cold weather, poor infrastructure and our reliance on foreign imports left the country six hours away from running out of gas last Winter.

Everyone knows this crisis has been coming. Labour shamefully dodged the issue of our inadequate, ageing energy network throughout their years in power, preferring to leave it as a conundrum for their successors to solve. But that is no excuse for little having been done in the last three years.

It is essential the Coalition get to grips with this issue as soon as possible. Where are the new storage facilities? When will full exploitation for British shale gas get the go-ahead? What deals can be struck with foreign providers in the meantime to ensure the gas supply does not sputter at a crucial moment?

If supplies fail in a cold winter, people will die, many more will suffer and the economy will be hammered. That is morally, socially and electorally unacceptable.

The Blair and Brown governments preferred not to answer these questions, judging them politically too expensive. Now we cannot afford to ignore them any longer.


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