Sadly, concrete always seems to win

I had no intention of actually dirtying my hands by buying The Times of London to read today, but I scanned its headline on the display. “Search for growth lifts estuary airport hopes”, it proudly announced.

And that’s when I realised, that, sadly, even after the lessons of decades of poorly planned infrastructure development, concrete still always seems to win over common sense.

Some people may be most concerned at the Chancellor or the Exchequer’s diktat on freezing public sector pay, just to “put the boot in” conveniently ahead of a national one day strike over worsening pensions management.

But I’m more concerned about his sudden conversion to Keynesianism. He seems to want to create lots of construction jobs, widening roads and motorways, laying foundations for nuclear power reactors, and perhaps throwing Portland cement over large parts of the Essex coast for a new “hub” airport.

Yes, this would create economic growth of a kind. Productivity would rise, employment would rise, income tax revenue would rise. But it would be the equivalent of sending a team of workpeople to dig a trench for no reason whatsoever, and sending another team to fill it in the next day.

What this country needs is assets, not liabilities. We need to build infrastructure that will enable economic productivity and social wellbeing and not place a long-term drain on society and the public purse. Roads, nuclear power plants and airports are all potential liabilities. Here’s just a few reasons why :-

1. We don’t need more or wider roads

The health disbenefits of building roads are documented. Besides the air quality problems that increased traffic produces, more people driving is bad for the obesity statistics. There is, in fact, a direct correlation between how much more we’ve been driving and how much fatter we are. The fat epidemic may not be down to peoples’ diets – it may be down to their drive time. Centralised employment and social services has been behind a lot of extra road miles, so you could say that cutting local hospitals, Post Offices and shops is directly responsible for jammed roads and bulging waistlines.

With Peak Oil here, or just around the corner, nobody can guarantee that car ownership or car use will increase as it has in the past. No matter that George Osborne has prevented a rise in fuel duty, if global oil markets continue their crawl upwards in a scenario of impending scarcity, people will have to pay more to keep driving for retail, work, education, health and administration needs. It could be that fuel costs start to enforce re-localisation of public amenities. And so, if vehicles become too expensive to run, will the roads start to empty ? If we build more roads now, will we actually need them in 15 years’ time ?

And what about the valuable land that gets covered in tarmacadam ? At what point do we need to start removing roads to increase food production ?

2. Nuclear power plants are a lead necklace

Despite the worldwide public relations lobbying for the benefits of a nuclear power renaissance (which the Iranians seemed to actually believe for some reason), nuclear power remains expensive and can often turn out to be unreliable. It’s costly to operate nuclear reactors with a certain amount of flexibility, which is what we would need to backup wind and solar power, so most operators want to run them all the time at full capacity. The United Kingdom still hasn’t resolved the issue of where we put all the radioactive waste from 50 years of civilian nuclear power generation, which is going to cost lots of money whichever way it’s handled. And there is no guarantee that nuclear power projects will see completion in the turbulent economic framework in which we find ourselves.

The behind-the-scenes discussions between the UK Government and the nuclear power industry have almost certainly included promises that the public purse will put up the money for risk insurance, guaranteeing a long-term price for the nuclear electricity generated (which will affect our bills), and decommissioning the reactors at the end of their safe working lives. There is even a possibility that nuclear power operators will get a competitive edge if a “carbon floor price” is introduced. Despite these sweeteners, the nuclear power industry does not appear willing or capable to make firm plans for more than two new nuclear facilities, one at Hinckley and other at Wylfa.

All in all, it seems that the underlying economics of nuclear power, and all the publicly-financed costs at the start and at the end of reactor lives, means that atomic energy is a lead necklace on society.

So, putting people to work to build the concrete foundations for new nuclear reactors may seem like growth, but it isn’t.

3. We don’t need no new airport capacity

Whether or not there is a comprehensive policy on restricting the growth of air travel, or taxing aviation fuel, which could naturally slow down expansion, there is every reason to suspect that volumes of flights will reduce, simply because of economic conditions.

We don’t need a new airport in England. We certainly don’t need to pour some runways over large areas of Essex marshland. The increase in road traffic between a new hub airport and the centre of London could in itself wreck targets on congestion and air quality, I expect. Plus, if air travel does start to plummet because of economic constraints on globalised trade and passenger movements, we wouldn’t need this white elephant.

Yes, George Osborne, put people to work pouring concrete and hail some temporary economic growth. But in 10 years’ time, watch out for these liabilities to weigh heavily on the neck of the British people. The construction industry, in the doldrums because you won’t subsidise zero carbon social housebuilding, solar power or energy renovations, they’ll leap at any chance to do some work, however short-term it is. But not everybody will come on board with your concrete plans.

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