The problem that drove Tube privatisation is still with us

One of the great strengths of Christian Woolmar’s highly readable account of Gordon Brown’s drive to part-privatise the London Underground, Down The Tube, is that although he is very hostile to the policy he explains why so many transport managers were really keen to see it introduced. They may have had many second thoughts since, but at the time involving private firms in long-running legal contracts seemed to many the solution to the regular problem of short-term decision making over transport infrastructure.

Cutting investment in transport was often a popular option at times of cutbacks and the swings from grand plans to big cuts and back again resulted in much wasted effort on plans that never materialised and higher costs for those that did. Long-term legal contracts which politicians could not just axe come the next budget round seemed the answer.

London’s PPP may have turned out to be a really bad answer, but the problem it failed to answer is still very much there – as this week’s Infrastructure Cost Review report from HM Treasury / Infrastructure UK reveals. (It was on your Christmas reading list, wasn’t it?).

The review found that infrastructure work in the UK costs more than in comparable countries, for reasons including, “stop-start investment programmes and the lack of a visible and continuous pipeline of forward work”. In total, the extra costs in the UK amount to around 15% of what is spent on infrastructure work, making this issue a significant one – getting the same value for money as in other countries would in itself be the equivalent of a major boost in government spending on our infrastructure.

The lack of long-term commitment and planning isn’t the only problem the report identifies, but it does make the report a reminder that though PPP may have failed in London the original problem still needs fixing: how to get more long-term planning on subjects where consistency is needed for more than one Parliament, even if it is a five-year fixed-term one.

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