Nik Darlington 8.15am
The Chancellor, George Osborne, will use a speech to the Conservative party conference hall today to announce, amongst other policies (an Osborne speech isn’t an Osborne speech without a few tricks up those sleeves) a further freeze on Council Tax until 2013.
Mr Osborne is also being prompted from all sides - stage right and left - to reformulate a strategy for growth.
His predecessor at No.11, Alistair Darling, wrote in the Independent on Sunday that the Chancellor is “not daft” and will be acutely aware, to use a nautical analogy of which the sailing lover Darling would approve, of the need to change tack. It won’t, of course, be presented as a “Plan B”; but no less a plan must be set out today.
The Labour party, Ed Balls in particular, has been playing on growth for some tome. Over the weekend, a pointed piece of advice has come from within the Conservative ranks. The Chairman of the powerful Treasury Select Committee, the usually discreetAndrew Tyrie, has insisted that growth plans are not working. He also attacked the ring-fencing of budgets such as healthcare and international development. The MP for Chichester is not alone on his party’s benches in being critical of the Government’s strategy. The mostly youthful grouping of Tory MPs dubbed as the “New Right” are demanding tax cuts to boost spending power of individuals and businesses. Described as economically and socially liberal - and ferociously ambitious - the “New Right” is drawn largely from the 2010 intake and includes historian Kwasi Kwarteng and Matt Hancock, a former (some might say current) advisor to Mr Osborne.
And this morning, the new director of the Institute for Directors, Simon Walker, was doing the round of TV & radio studios calling for a more explicit growth strategy, tax cuts, and a massive outlay on infrastructure such as roads and railways - a “ring-fenced” outlay, perhaps a more veiled criticism of ring-fencing other areas of spending.
Much has been made of the potential growth impact of High Speed Rail. The Government is also banking on a housing boom to stimulate economic activity in a nation reliant on its construction and property sectors, hence the acrimonious efforts to reform planning policy.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General, mentioned both yesterday in a provocative interview to the IoS. Notwithstanding the curiosity of appearing to disown the ‘big society’ having only 6 months ago been arguably its most articulate advocate after the Prime Minister, Mr Maude went on a loose diatribe against opponents of HS2 and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in its present incarnation.
The National Trust (membership approaching 5 million) and other preservationist campaigners such as the CPRE and Woodland Trust are peddling “bollocks”, according to Maude. It is just the latest in a plethora if ill-advised inflammatory comments from Government ministers. The PM has offered a more conciliatory tone but he is being advised that the Tories’ political positioning will benefit from fisticuffs with the forces of darkness that are the National Trust, Jonathan Dimbleby and Bill Bryson.
And opponents of High Speed Rail are opponents of growth. A long thin island like Britain has to have it, he says.
As I write this on my way to catching a train to Manchester, I can’t say I’d be that bit more excited in the knowledge I’d reach my destination a few minutes quicker (and probably for a much higher price). I can’t say either that being in transit is stopping me from thinking purposefully and getting my work done.
On nearly every currently available basis, HS2 is promising to be a weaker option than alternatives, such as upgrading the West Coast Mainline. High Speed Rail to Edinburgh is a different matter, as it might genuinely dissuade people from flying to Scotland, but that is decades off.
And the planning shakeup is even worse. Ministers have bought into a development lobby fudge that the planning system is inhibiting growth, when limited access to credit, slack consumer demand and developers’ intransigence (greenfield gives higher profits) are the immediate barriers.
A more encouraging move is that announced yesterday by Grant Shapps, the housing minister - the Government will make available state-owned land for 100,000 houses on a “build now, pay later” scheme.
But if this Government really wants to stoke the economic furnace and provide infrastructure this country desperately needs, it should be looking seriously at Boris Johnson’s idea for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Instead, ministers appear to view it with an air of amused disdain.
Britain needs more airport capacity and fast. An extra runway at Heathrow ought to be entirely off the table, whatever its owners seem to be hoping. Stanstead and Gatwick are unviable for expansion for environmental and logistical reasons.
A new airport in the Thames would cost as much perhaps as £50 billion but the effect on economic activity in those relatively depressed areas of Kent and Essex east of London, and beyond, would be immense. The environmental impact would be a concern but the least bad amongst the various trade-offs available and almost certainly preferable to the damage that would be caused by carving HS2 across the middle of England.
It would send out a message of a measure of ambition. If Mr Osborne wants an infrastructure driven dash for growth, he should fly east.
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