Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Infrastructure for Britain - an agenda for growth

One of the themes that all party conferences have suggested so far is that the government can help the economy by spending money on infrastructure.  Certainly the Conservatives believe they are doing that.  However, there are only two major ways government can help out in this sector, and the main reasons are because it is such a hindrance more often than not.

Firstly, it can get the hell out of the way of the private sector provision of infrastructure, by not negating its private property rights or stopping it from engaging in large, profitable projects.  The key areas the private sector gets involved in are energy, airports and telecommunications, but it should also be set free to put money into roads and railways (good luck with that, by the way). 

The second way is for it to invest in the infrastructure that it happens to own and run for now, but transition that infrastructure to commercial then private ownership.  What this means is roads and railways, but could arguably even stretch into health and education (though these are so far removed from being commercial as of yet, I'll ignore that for now).

Energy

In energy, the key intervention is the effective "tax" on electricity bills imposed by electricity retailers to pay for the compulsory "sustainable" generation of electricity, at prices far in excess of efficient forms of generation. The motive behind this policy was to chase the ghost of climate change (every new Chinese coal fired power station more than destroys the reduction in CO2 by this measure) and to pursue the illusion of industrial policy.  The latter is more effectively pursued by lowering corporation tax to a level competitive with all of Europe (15%), the former shouldn't be pursued at all.   The "sustainability" agenda is costing British businesses and households, it makes electricity more expensive in the UK than it need be, and diverts investment in power generation from economically efficient (and largely environmentally friendly) sources to more ephemeral, expensive and lower capacity ones.   Modern gas and coal fired power stations produce virtually no deterioration in local air quality.  It is time to truly deregulate the energy sector.

Little need be said about the other intervention in energy, which is the absurd "windfall" tax on oil and gas exploration.  Politics winning out over economics, and jobs.  Why would Britain ever want to deter oil and gas exploration while existing North Sea fields are in decline?

Telecommunications

The key intervention here is the heavy handed regulation of OfCom which regulates, bizarrely, a mobile phone market that is vibrant with competition, and continues to intervene in the supply of telecommunications infrastructure to an extent that hinders facilities based competition.  Why should there not be competing broadband networks being developed to homes?  Why should BT's investment be forced to be shared with others?  The legacy of the twisted copper network should be all that remains as a mandatory, regulated priced shared facility - because that was the deal with privatisation.   Beyond that, the role for Ofcom is difficult to see in this sector.  It is time for a bottom up review of whether heavy handed telecommunications regulation still makes sense.

Airports

No infrastructure sector is suffering from a blindness of economic analysis or vision than this one.  With all three major parties effectively stifling growth of airports around London, you would have to assume they all think that it is time that British Airways and Virgin Atlantic simply never grew again, and that the future for air travel from Britain is based on people flying to the growing hubs of Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol, Frankfurt and Munich airports, and to fly on Air France/KLM and Lufthansa, or better yet fly from regional airports to hubs in Doha, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, on airlines owned by authoritarian misogynistic oil-rich plutarchies.   For that is the future guaranteed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted could all be expanded, today, with private money.  For a government willing to run roughshod over NIMBYs in building its own taxpayer funded totem - HS2 - to kowtow to NIMBYs in rural Essex, west London and west Sussex is hypocritical and economic lunacy.   The arguments against it on climate change grounds are again nonsensical in the context of new airports springing up in China, and the expansion of Heathrow's competing hubs in continental Europe.  Why should European (and Middle Eastern) airlines gain such capacity, but British ones not? 

Stansted is the easiest to expand, the land is held by BAA, the transport links to it are good, and it would facilitate a transfer of some low-cost airline traffic from Gatwick.  There is no sound reason to continue to restrict capacity there. 

Gatwick suffers from 32 year old planning decision to not build a second runway before 2019.  Given the lead times for such projects, it should be made clear that this will be supported.  Gatwick is a mini hub for BA and Virgin Atlantic, and is useful for leisure routes short and long haul, that are less suited to Heathrow, as well as servicing the southeast.

However, it is Heathrow where the need is greatest.  Unless the government were to treat a new Thames Estuary Airport as a grand project (which would have to be part funded by property development at the current Heathrow site and a tax on the property value gains for those on Heathrow flight paths), Heathrow is Britain's international hub airport.  Transit traffic does benefit Britain, enormously, because it makes routes to destinations that would otherwise be marginal, profitable, by feeding in passengers from North America and Europe. A third runway would alleviate the chronic delays in both takeoffs and landings that waste fuel, time and increase pollution.   However, most of all it would allow Britain's premium airlines to grow, to add more routes, more frequencies and compete with Air France/KLM, the Lufthansa group, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, United Airlines and others.  It would generate employment not only from construction, but in airlines and the airport itself, but more importantly by lowering the cost of travel and freight for British based businesses and residents.

Let's not continue the lie that high speed rail, which wouldn't be finished for 15 years, would make any meaningful difference, given 96% of flights at Heathrow are not on routes serviceable by domestic rail services.  Let's also admit that the business case for Crossrail was partly based on providing better connections between Heathrow and the City, Canary Wharf and east London.

Railways

The one sector where private investment is almost certainly unlikely to be seen on any great scale, is in rail infrastructure.  With the network not well priced, it should be getting run on a commercial basis so that the franchisees of the future pay demand based prices for scarce slots.  Expansion of the West Coast Main Line should be funded not by taxpayers, but by Network Rail borrowing against future revenues.  High speed rail should be considered on the same basis, but it wont be - because it would never be built.  The government is taking steps to correct the excessive subsidies in this sector, but it should be considered, along with reforms of the roads sector, for commercialisation.
Roads

There will be a handful of opportunities for the private sector to develop new toll roads (e.g. another Dartford Crossing), and it should be set free not only to respond to government proposals,  but to generate its own.  If a company wants to build a new London south circular, why shouldn't it feel free to plan a route, buy land, build and toll it - for example.
However, there needs to be a more fundamental change.  In France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Japan, Taiwan and China, major highways are frequently privately owned.  In the UK, the motorway network should be sold, and local authorities required to put local roads into commercial structures.   Roads should be funded through borrowing, paid back through tolls, or (for now) fuel tax revenue.  Given motorists pay five times as much in motoring taxes as they get in government spending, arguments about the private sector ripping off motorists are derisive.  Then let the privately owned networks contract directly with motorists, who could choose to pay tolls or pay fuel tax, and watch there be enough funding for road maintenance and improvements - whilst introducing road pricing in a non-intrusive, cost-effective and low risk way. 

Furthermore, there needs to be a culture change that rejects the failed 13 year policy of allowing road projects to be cancelled, and the land acquired for them sold - which has destroyed opportunities for improved corridors in London.   The answer to traffic congestion is not to stop improving roads for fear it will generate traffic, but to improve pricing (toll new capacity).  In that light, Transport for London should start developing a strategy on capacity of London's arterial road network, instead of considering the network as static.

Conclusion

Sadly, this government has shown little real interest in being revolutionary on infrastructure.  Energy and telecommunications policies are largely a continuity of the previous administration.  Airports policy is anti-growth and says the government has little real interest in the growth of that sector, other than for regional airports being served by foreign carriers.   Railways policy has some promise, but is overshadowed by the ridiculous totem of HS2 - a project to provide massive subsidies to business people based in London travelling to the north, which wont deliver most of what is promised.  Roads policy shows a little promise, but needs radical governance reform, which is seen by the almost Soviet-era handling of maintenance.
It is time to get government out of the way of infrastructure investors, and to stop crowding them out.  Furthermore, it is likely to destroy wealth through projects such as HS2 and the fascination with inefficient energy generation sources.  It should allow more airport capacity around London, it should move rail investment onto a longer term, commercial basis, and should shift the road network onto a commercial basis as well.  Now is the time to be brave.

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