Bridges and bypasses win votes – but their ability to ‘level up’ Britain is less certain
Even if Boris Johnson comes good on promises to build big in the north, the economy’s centre of gravity will stay where it is
Last modified on Thu 1 Jul 2021 09.03 EDT
All governments love building things. Fascists, communists, social democrats, even conservatives who demand austerity in other matters – politicians can rarely resist the potential rewards of commissioning new infrastructure. From announcement to construction to opening, new public amenities provide ministers with multiple opportunities to show voters that their administration is making a difference.
“Infrastructure improves everyday life,” said the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in March. “This is why I created the levelling-up fund … to invest £4.8bn in high-value local infrastructure.” Such investment, said the fund’s prospectus, was about “giving people pride in their local communities; bringing more places across the UK closer to opportunity; and demonstrating that government can visibly deliver”.
Presented in this kind of uplifting language, as they usually are, new transport links and other such projects seem free of ideology and party politics, which may be especially appealing to voters in an acrimonious era. But state infrastructure is not really neutral at all. Where it’s sited, whom it benefits, what is considered an acceptable cost: these are intensely political considerations. For the current government, which owes its majority to new Tory seats in northern England and the Midlands that have been neglected by the state for decades – or feel that they have been – providing new bridges or bypasses is a potentially crucial way of demonstrating that Conservatism has changed.
One problem with this strategy, at least for voters in these areas, is that with infrastructure, as with much else, Boris Johnson has a history of promising but not delivering. A garden bridge across the Thames, a new airport on an artificial island off the Kent coast, a bridge or tunnel to Northern Ireland: all of these eye-catching ideas have been promoted by the Tories’ great salesman, and none have been built. So far, they have not been concrete projects so much as unsubtle political signals – of Johnson’s optimism, personal ambition and disregard for difficult practical details. In a country that voted for the barely sketched future of Brexit, offering near-fantasies can get a politician long way. But the day will come when even the Conservatives’ most suggestible new voters expect them to actually build something.
Another problem is that even the grandest completed projects don’t always change the country as expected. Forty years ago this month, the Queen opened the Humber Bridge, then the biggest single-span suspension bridge in the world. A bridge across the Humber estuary, connecting the isolated port city of Hull with the east Midlands and the south, had been proposed for more than a century. Yet it did not get decisive backing until 1966, when the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, faced a tricky byelection in Hull. Labour promised a bridge and held the seat.
But construction problems and other delays ate up another 15 years. By the bridge’s completion, Hull was declining and Britain was in crisis, with an unpopular Margaret Thatcher presiding over riots and deindustrialisation. The enormous, sweeping bridge offered a rare chance for national pride. The Queen called it “a splendid advertisement for British engineering”, and the opening ceremony featured a flypast by the Red Arrows, the RAF jets roaring over the bridge towers out of an otherwise grey sky. It’s easy to imagine Johnson appearing at similar ceremonies in a few years’ time.
The bridge was also expected to bring an economic revival. “If the removal of frustration in travel is as vital as I believe,” the Queen said, “this area must be a land of opportunity … I have every confidence that there are many waiting to grasp it.”
Four decades on, the bridge is still a great sight: an elegant arc of concrete and steel across the tea-coloured Humber. But the region around it has changed less than many hoped. The population of Hull, unlike that of Britain as a whole, is no higher than when the bridge opened. The handsome city centre has been regenerated, but it lacks bustle, and Hull has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The bridge has cut local journey times and connected families and businesses, yet the traffic on it feels light for a crossing of its size. On the other side of the river from Hull, much of the land remains agricultural. A terrace house in Barton-upon-Humber, the town nearest the bridge, a sleepy maze of old brick streets, can be bought for £80,000. “People there like it that way,” one of the bridge staff told me. “They don’t want change.”
The impact of new infrastructure on previously overlooked places is hard to predict, especially in centralised, sometimes conservative countries such as Britain, where people and companies can be hard to lure away from their accustomed locations. The gradual shifts and sheer complexity of the economy also mean that it can take a long time for voters to accept, if they ever do, that such infrastructure hasn’t brought enough benefits to justify its expense. The Humber Bridge cost £385m to build in today’s money. It was financed by government loans, which have generated even larger interest charges, and which have yet to be fully paid back despite a toll for bridge users, as almost everyone I spoke to locally pointed out. But none said that building the bridge hadn’t been worthwhile.
As a notoriously short-term politician, Johnson may not be too worried about whether his government’s levelling-up construction projects are effective in the long term. It’s the photo opportunities all the building sites will provide and the overall impression of purposeful government that are probably his first priorities. As he recently told the US magazine the Atlantic: “People live by narrative. Human beings are creatures of the imagination.” He didn’t sound as if he lies awake at night thinking about northern England’s precise contribution to our gross domestic product.
Conservative governments have sometimes used the north-east of England, in particular, as a stage for displays of economic ingenuity and social concern. In 1987, Thatcher performed a pensive, highly publicised walkabout on a bleak former industrial site on Teesside, and set up a development corporation there soon afterwards. David Cameron announced a Humber enterprise zone in 2011. This spring, the government announced a Humber freeport. The frequency of these initiatives could show that the Tories have treated the region with a seriousness that, until their recent electoral successes there, was under-appreciated. Or it could show that none of these schemes have been thought through enough to really work.
Northern England is full of spectacular structures, and Johnson may add to them. But the economy’s centre of gravity will probably stay where it has been for a long time, in the quieter landscape of the south. Governments love to build things, but power often likes to hide.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist
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