UK infrastructure chief champions city connections – and condemns Brexit disconnections

By on 27/11/2017 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Lord Adonis, UK infrastructure chief, is championing connectivity, saying “What you do is scour the earth in search of good public policy, and then you duplicate it.”

Linking world cities to smaller conurbations through high-speed rail can boost wider economic growth, Lord Adonis told a London audience this month. But the chair of the National Infrastructure Commission also warned that Brexit could wreck the UK’s economic ambitions, and called for the country to stay in the EU

Improving transport links between world cities and outlying regions can boost wider economic growth, the chair of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission said earlier this month in a talk on London’s future. But he warned that Brexit puts “Britain – and London – at one of those critical moments when it could all start to go wrong.”

Lord (Andrew) Adonis, who chairs the body charged with setting out the UK’s infrastructure needs, argued in a lecture to King’s College London’s Strand Group that linking London to the “great centres of consumption in the Midlands and the North” via high-speed rail lines will help other cities to “become highly competitive and collaborative centres of production,” creating “a single, super-networked metropolitan economic zone driving the whole British economy forwards.”

During the 1960s and 1970s, Adonis argued, national leaders sought to push economic growth out from London – but they succeeded only in suppressing growth across the board. “Less London does not mean more Liverpool,” he said. “The prosperity of the North is not founded on the suppression of the South; on the contrary, the prosperity of London breeds the prosperity of Liverpool.”

The UK must build its planned high-speed rail link between London and the North, he said, plus local transport links, a second rapid underground line in the capital and a new trans-Pennine route across the North of England. Then shorter journey times between England’s main cities will create a “golden arrow of intense new economic activity”.

Allying the physical and the digital

Asked by Global Government Forum whether digital technologies might make physical connectivity less important, Adonis replied that “trade and business begets trade and business. The better our digital coverage, the more vibrant our economy will be and the more people will want to travel – so we’d have greater demand for transport connectivity, not lesser demand.”

Here, though, the infrastructure chief issued a stern warning to UK regulators and digital infrastructure providers. “Our regulators haven’t placed a high enough premium on infrastructure, on new digital systems,” he said. “The National Infrastructure Commission is going to have a lot more to say about this in the coming months.”

The UK needs “near-universal 4G coverage” and widespread fibre-optic broadband, he added. And Adonis suggested that Openreach, the British Telecom (BT) body responsible, is at risk if it doesn’t speed up the building of broadband infrastructure.

“The regulators need to be much tougher on the private sector in seeing that investment is put in place – including Openreach, which has clearly been far too close to BT in the past,” he said. “Let me say very clearly to BT and Openreach: if they don’t get their act together sufficiently to provide state of the art broadband in the private sector, then they shouldn’t be surprised if many people start to say that it might be better done in the public sector.”

Lord Adonis says the UK must build its planned high-speed rail link between London and the North, which will create a “golden arrow of intense new economic activity”.

The blind alley of Brexit

No matter how the UK’s infrastructure develops, though, Adonis argued that Brexit could severely hamper economic growth in future. “Modern Britain can’t have greater prosperity by succumbing to a nationalist fever and pretending that we can leave our continent of Europe in terms of trade, security and the intense multilateral co-operation needed to deal with the world’s ever present madmen and dictators,” he said. “There is no such thing for modern Britain as ‘splendid isolation’. Without European peace, security and trade, we are in serious jeopardy as a country.”

In Adonis’s view, the UK’s political leaders would be wise to “stop the whole Brexit fiasco and to tell the British people, straight, that on June 23rd 2016 they were sold a pup by political fraudsters; that that was a vote which can and should be reversed for the good of them, their children and their grandchildren; and that, as [Brexit secretary] David Davis so wisely put it, ‘a democracy which cannot change its mind is not a democracy’.”

London itself is likely to be spared the worst damage from Brexit, Adonis said. “It would take a really serious set of massive misjudgements on the part of government in terms of negotiating trade treaties to make London an unattractive place to do business,” he argued. “However, the job of government shouldn’t be to put obstacles in the way of people doing trade and business; it should be to help them. The European Union has been a brilliant help to people doing trade and business over the last generation, because of the Customs Union and the Single Market.”

Adonis has recently been reading the 18th century writer Edward Gibbon, he added, and came across a quote that rang a chord: “I love Gibbon’s verdict on monasticism: ‘Painful to the individual, and useless to mankind.’ It is precisely my view of Brexit! So London: beware.”

Stealing with honour

The peer ended his comments by highlighting the need for governments to learn from overseas, illustrating his point with an anecdote about the Chinese approach to developing technologies. As transport secretary, he recalled, he’d met China’s transport minister – who offered to build London’s Crossrail 1 underground link for half the price quoted by the Germans.

A British businessmen had, he said, whispered to him that they could offer such a good rate because in China “R&D stands for ‘Rob and Duplicate’”: the Chinese had combined German technology with Chinese labour rates and economies of scale, producing advanced infrastructure extremely cheaply. And there’s nothing shameful, Adonis argued, about identifying and copying policies adopted by other countries. “I’ve always regarded that as a prime principle of effective public policy,” he concluded. “What you do is scour the earth in search of good public policy, and then you duplicate it.”

Here at Global Government Forum, we fully agree; for it’s our primary mission to scour the earth in search of good public policy, and to help our readers to duplicate it.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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