A focus on infrastructure in the U.K.

December 10, 2013

The United Kingdom created an independent group, U.K. Infrastructure, to track, coordinate and promote infrastructure investment in the country. It announced its latest plan last week:

A new national infrastructure plan containing information on over £375 billion [$616 billion] of planned public and private sector infrastructure investment has been announced by the government.

The plan sets out investment for energy, transport, flood defense, waste, water and communications infrastructure up to 2030 and beyond.

This is a good approach. By collecting and promoting this data for both private and public projects, the value of the nation’s hard assets is highlighted.

The future infrastructure pipeline, which only includes projects and programs worth over £50 million, shows that planned investment in infrastructure has increased to over £375 billion from £309 billion last year. Of the 646 projects and programs in the updated pipeline, 291 are already under construction.

Among the many projects being undertaken are public sector investments:

  • take forward steps to convert public sector car fleets to electric vehicles investing £5 million in a pilot during the year 2014 to 2015
  • create a new court for infrastructure to avoid unnecessary delays in the planning process for major projects
  • open a £10 million competitive fund in early 2014 to test innovative solutions to deliver superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas of the UK. Options may include enhanced mobile services, new fixed technologies and alternative approaches to structuring financial support, working closely with the communications industry
  • aim to make the UK a world centre for the testing and development of driverless cars. The government will conduct a review to ensure that the legislative and regulatory framework to support this aim reporting late 2014. It will also create a £10 million prize fund for a town or city to develop as a testing ground for driverless cars

U.K. Infrastructure made the list of projects available in downloadable form.

The United States government came close to this kind of public accounting when it documented spending under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 at www.recovery.gov. You could enter a zip code and see all the local projects that were funded with public recovery funds, although that effort was much broader than infrastructure accounting.

Harvard’s Martin Feldstein recently opined in the New York Times about the need for more federal government spending on infrastructure:

To get the economy back on track, President Obama should propose, and Congress should enact, a five-year fiscal package that would move the growth of gross domestic product to above 3 percent a year and focus on direct government spending on infrastructure…

…The total price tag over five years would have to exceed $1 trillion to achieve the needed rise in the economic growth rate. The lack of ‘shovel-ready’ projects is not an excuse for not pursuing this strategy or for diverting the funds into income transfers and other low-impact spending of the kind that made the 2009 stimulus so ineffective. It would be better to spend a year or two preparing for the right kind of spending.

Preparing for the “right kind of spending” should begin with a database of current and projected infrastructure spending. The Departments of Transportation and Energy could be tasked with this effort. I think this would be more effective than placing it with the Treasury Department, as the U.K. did. The U.S. should track what it spends on infrastructure and make this information publicly available.

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