Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

Infrastructure hasn’t over the years been a topic of too much debate. It simply went on, all around us, yet curiously out of sight. We’d complain, some of us, about HS2 and Hinckley Point, but these are new glamour projects. Not the day to day. The day to day is about detail, hard graft, the invisible – and the maintenance of what we have.

All has been suddenly thrown into a much sharper perspective by last week’s collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. The human cost is terrible, the economic cost (access to Genoa’s port, north-south communication) serious, the political cost (Italians disillusioned with government now even more so – but to whom do they turn?) likely to be high.  Italy’s interior minister blames the Eurozone’s strict rules on budget deficits – but as the Financial Times points out ‘a bigger constraint is the crushing burden of interest payments on Italy’s public debt’, 132% of annual economic output. (Source: Tony Barber, FT 18/19 August.)

Italy is not alone. Germany has bridge issues of its own. Obama’s transportation secretary described the US as ‘one big pothole’. Much of the road network across Britain, once you leave the motorway system, is in a poor state of repair: not dangerous, but a significant impediment to good communication.

(How many other bridges small as well as large on motorways across the developed world are suspect? The Genoa bridge had passed all its tests. I’m reminded of the long-term roadworks on the M5 just south of the M6 junction. You see few workers on the motorway itself: there are 40 or so (notices tell us) out of sight, working below the road surface. That at least is re-assuring.)

Quoting Tony Barber again: in the UK, ‘governments of all political stripes tend to neglect unglamorous small scale infrastructure projects and repair work in favour of ostentatious schemes with predictably spiralling costs.’

HS2 (high speed rail link) is a case in point. Local infrastructure (taking in the north-west, north-east, south, and south-west of England, and Wales and Scotland – HS2 may in twenty years time, with a following wind, just about reach Manchester and Leeds) and high levels of maintenance of existing infrastructure would be a far wiser way to spend money. In the case of Hinckley B (our very own Chinese-financed nuclear power station), funding requirements have trumped political considerations – and reduced our scope for independence and influence in the world.

One other consideration, which Italy’s situation highlights. Massive infrastructure self-evidently requires massive maintenance and repair costs, and that assumes continuing stellar economic performance. Will we need our skyscrapers in fifty (or a hundred) years’ time? Will our road networks be underused, radically underused, as we develop new modes of transport?

We move too fast, too blindly, and that won’t stop any time soon. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative is one guarantee of that. Development is driven as much by political and strategic as well as economic considerations. (One powerful reason why we need to be part of the EU – only that way will we have serious political heft in the world.)

What we can do is hold to the simple truth that infrastructure requires maintenance, and put aside the money in national budgets across the world to ensure that it is carried out to the highest level. That is the imperative now. (Easy to say, immeasurably harder to ensure it happens.) As for the future, we cannot simply rely on continuing high levels of prosperity as a guarantee of the required levels of funding, via taxation and borrowing or private investment.

If we cannot be confident in the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure, then we shouldn’t be building. One day our leaps into the dark will come to haunt us.

Out on to the Silk Road …

The new Silk Road – will the direction of traffic be primarily east to west, west to east, or both – and who will control the flow?

I’ve posted recently on the subject of history, and how we abuse it. But sometimes we do need the big picture, and I’m thinking here of China President Xi’s $900 million Belt and Road initiative to build a modern-day Silk Road.

History provides a vital context, and a warning.

Forty-six nations attended a gathering in Beijing last weekend. Heads of state from Rusia and Turkey were there, though not from Europe. The EU held back from endorsing a final statement because it didn’t stress ‘transparency and co-ownership’. India argued the scheme is ‘little more than a colonial enterprise [that would leave] debt and broken communities in its wake’.

Philip Hammond attended (not our high-risk foreign secretary, I note), relishing the opportunity for trade deals. In his speech to delegates he argued Britain was a ‘natural partner’ for China. ‘China and the UK have a long and rich trading history…’  Others have commented that the Chinese, remembering the 19th century Opium Wars, and the great British imperial enterprise, might see this ‘natural partnership’ in  different way.

There’s something telling in this sycophancy. Sycophancy comes out of weakness, not strength. The EU holds back, argues from a position of strength. India is rebarbative, confrontational, overstates it – yet there’s truth lurking there. Circumspection has its merits.

Britain in the 16th century set up its own maritime Silk Road, along with the Dutch, Portuguese and (less successfully) the French. The Belt and Road initiative is the land route reasserting itself. The old oceanic skills of Empire will no longer help us. We are one of many, supplicants, out on a western European limb.

There will be many camel trains along the new road, if it develops the way the Chinese wish. We might just be a little lonely. On a camel train, as out on the ocean, there is strength in numbers.